Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

TOP STORY >> City delays joining water group

Leader staff writer

Construction of the Lonoke White Water Project using money available through the economic stimulus package has hit a snag.

The Jacksonville Water Commission said last week that it could not sign a contract to buy water from the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority, – which would guarantee Greers Ferry Lake as a future water source for Jacksonville – until seeing some hard numbers on what that would cost.

The Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission also are reluctant to sign because as the contract is currently drafted the monthly cost would be $5.04 per meter or $45,360 a month even if no water was taken from the system.

And spokesman Bill Cypert said the Cabot commission says they are afraid the project might run over the estimated $62 million since they have not been allowed to see a copy of the project plans.

The project needs Cabot, Jacksonville and Vilonia, which make up 57 percent of the customer base.

Project engineer Tommy Bond said last week that getting all 12 members to sign contracts within 30 to 45 days is essential if the project is to move forward by June and be completed in 21 months.

The project is eligible for loans at 1 percent interest for 30 years because it is ready for construction. Only projects that are ready for construction are eligible for economic stimulus money because the purpose of the stimulus package is to put people to work now.

In addition to Jacksonville, Cabot and Vilonia, these cities and water associations are also part of the project: Grand Prairie, Beebe, Lonoke, Ward, McRae, North Pulaski, Furlow, Southwest White County Water Association and Austin.

“We can’t get the money until we get contracts signed,” Bond said. “There will be no payments until lines are completed and we started delivering water. But we have to be able to bid the job in June or sooner, and the money has to be spent in 21 months.

“This is the best deal we’ll ever have,” Bond said. “This is a chance to own and control the destiny of a water source.”

Commission consultant Kirby Rowland of Garver Engineers, advised commissioners to weigh carefully the pros and cons of joining Lonoke-White.

On the one hand, Jacksonville’s future water needs appear to be well taken care of until 2040 with projected flows from Central Arkansas Water sources. The rates for that water are considerably lower than rates talked about with Lonoke-White. Further, Jacksonville is already looking at several high-dollar capital improvement projects, and Lonoke-White would mean taking on another one.

On the other hand, there are security issues associated with any water system. In the case of CAW, the water comes a long distance and through lines attached to the I-430 Bridge from Little Rock to North Little Rock.

“The transmission lines – something could happen,” Rowland said.

Commissioner James Bolden said he was concerned about “a lot of what-ifs” and the fact that the newly revised five-year master plan for Jacksonville Water Works did not take Lonoke-White into account. “We need specifics,” he said.

Regarding the need to respond quickly to the opportunity coming federal stimulus funds, Commis-sioner Jack Danielson mused, “We have to have our bucket out there to catch some of it.”

As for water supply security, chairman Jim Peacock reflected, “Taking care of Little Rock Air Force Base – that’s very important. It is insurance more than anything else.”

The commission voted unanimously in favor of a motion by Mike Simpson, Jacksonville Water Works manager, to include the costs of participation in Lonoke-White in the current rate study.

The board also favored a recommendation by Danielson to look into the “legal logistics relatively quickly” of committing to buy from Lonoke-White in case the board wanted to go forward.

Leader staff writer Joan McCoy contributed to this report.