Over the past year the topic of merging county and city services, particularly water and sewage, and has been bounced around sporadically. The idea has popped up in a number of forums, meetings and discussions and was a dominant non-issue during the comprehensive planning meetings just completed.
Officially, the comprehensive planning sessions labelled the idea as a strong minority view but mention of merger studies did not gain support for the 10 year update. Planning Director Richard Osborne told one incredulous member of the public that while it was discussed a lot and can certainly continue to be talked about, the official tally shows the majority of the stakeholders prefer the county and city of Jasper to continue as separate infrastructure service providers.
Has the county missed an opportunity to expand our most crucial infrastructure or did we avoid a quagmire of study committees and hubbub, adding a layer of bureaucracy to water/sewage?
Here are some thoughts, both pro and con:
• Consistent through the discussion, speakers acknowledged the status quo is fine as long as the population here is static. Neither government is in any critical state, though significant growth can not be accommodated without expansion of water/sewage infrastructure.
• The city of Jasper has a full water department, which includes sources for raw water. The city has had their system in place for decades and serves the commercial area along Highway 515 and areas out in the county. The city/county service areas were set before the county had many resources, thus allowing the city to stake out territory the county may desire now.
• The county has water purchase agreements from surrounding cities/counties, including the original agreement to purchase essentially all the water they can use from the city of Calhoun at a rate that makes their operation financially secure. Of course, should some situation arise, Calhoun could theoretically cut off our county. The county is developing their first water source at Grandview Lake which will provide about 300,000 gallons a day, a significant portion of their needs.
• The city has sewage; the county does not. The idea of the county developing sewage operations is usually ruled out as impossible. We don’t buy that. Very difficult, yes, and not feasible for full countywide coverage, but we are not convinced that an inspired person with a deep-pocketed developer couldn’t put the county into the sewage business. Smaller package sewage plants for certain areas have been discussed previously so the idea is not unprecedented.
• When discussing any merger it’s important to recognize the different size/scopes of the operations of Jasper and the county. It would be like telling someone with a paid home (city of Jasper) to merge with someone with a long-term lease (the county and their water purchase agreements).
• It would seem likely additional efficiency could be gained by merging the departments, with personnel and equipment shared in both systems.
• It also seems likely that a combined Jasper/Pickens water authority might be able to carry a bigger stick to accomplish sorely needed projects. Expansion of water/sewage plants for Jasper is a looming and expensive proposition. Creating sewage for some areas of the county might be back on the table.
We’d like to end by saying that whether merger discussion ever rears its head again, there is undoubtedly and indisputably areas where cooperation between city and county over resources will benefit us all. This cooperation already exists. The city and county shared some water line work to allow more efficiency in moving H2O from one side the county to the other.
We’d urge the city and county to turn the discussion around. Rather than starting with talk of a merger; make that the end point (if needed). Begin by saying, “if we worked together are there some larger projects that become feasible.” And see where that leads.