The North Wilkesboro commissioners on April 2 agreed to fund up to $70,000 of any cost overruns of a proposed project connecting Mulberry Elementary School to the North Wilkesboro sewer system with a 6-inch forced main sewer line.

In July 2018, the Wilkes County commissioners approved a contract that included accepting a $1 million Community Development Block Grant from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to fund a three-mile-long North Wilkesboro sewer line along N.C. 18 North to the school.

The school needs to be connected to the town sewer system because its failing septic system resulted in the county school system receiving two DEQ notices of violation. Mulberry Principal Ritchie Cornette earlier said it could have resulted in the school’s cafeteria being closed, with an “outside chance” of the whole school being shut down if not addressed.

The county spent $87,500 for an engineering report that determined the project would likely go over the $1 million budget if a 6-inch forced main sewer line is used as planned, said Interim Town Manager Ed Evans in a North Wilkesboro board meeting Tuesday night.

Evans said he received an email from Kelly Coffey, senior planner with High Country Council of Governments, saying Wilkes County government officials insist that the project use a 4-inch rather than a 6-inch forced main sewer line to avoid any more expense than what the grant funds.

Evans said that he, North Wilkesboro Public Works Director Dale Shumate, David Poore from West Consultants and Bergie Speaks, Wilkes school system director of maintenance, met recently and agreed that a 6-inch line is needed to address future needs and avoid additional engineering expense from re-submitting the project with a 4-inch line for state approval.

“Putting in a 4-inch line would service Mulberry just fine,” noted Evans. “The county didn’t want to do anything that would provide service to anyone other than Mulberry School, because they didn’t want to pay the difference in price. The cost overrun was the big issue.”

Evans said the county agreed to keep the 6-inch main sewer line if the town would pay for project overages up to $70,000. Poore determined that 6-inch pipes and valves would cost $70,000 more than 4-inch counterparts for this project.

On April 2, the North Wilkesboro commissioners unanimously agreed to the county’s condition.

If bids for the project came in at $1 million or less, the town would pay the county nothing. If between $1 million and $1.07 million, the town would pay the county the exact overage, up to $70,000. If the bid came in over $1.07 million, the town would still owe the county $70,000.

Commissioner Bert Hall said, “That really makes my skin crawl, because we have bent over backwards to help get this line. We designed it on a 6-inch line, and I really think that’s very cheap on their part, and you can quote me on that.”

Hall said a 6-inch line is needed to match the town’s existing sewer infrastructure. He said this could potentially benefit county residents and eventually extend sewer service to North Wilkes Middle School. “But the county is saying, ‘We don’t want anybody else to have sewer.’ They don’t care. I think they’re just putting us in a spot because they know we need 6-inch line. I think it’s like a shakedown.”

Evans replied, “I don’t know if it’s that as much as it is, the grantor (the state) is only interested in getting sewer to that school. They don’t care about the rest.”

Commissioner Angela Day said she agreed with Hall and added, “We should do what’s best, not what’s cheapest.”

Mayor Robert Johnson added, “The county should be putting a little pressure” on the state.

Evans said up to $70,000 could be appropriated from the town’s water and sewer fund in the fiscal 2019-20 budget.

North Wilkesboro commissioners have until Dec. 6 to approve a bid and bids must be submitted by Aug. 9.

County Manager John Yates said in an interview Monday that county, school and North Wilkesboro officials have all been supportive of the sewer line project “and just need to wait and see what the bids are.”

The application for the $1 million grant was submitted by the county since the school is outside town. The school system appropriated $17,500 for engineering, which is in addition to $87,500 from county government for engineering.

The original project design includes a pump station, 14,500 feet of 6-inch force main sewer line, 2,520 feet of 8-inch gravity sewer line, 11 manholes and related materials.

Officials have said the 2,520 feet of gravity sewer line, on the end closest to North Wilkesboro near the Mountain View Road/N.C. 18 intersection, is the only portion that can have connections from adjacent property owners. It includes about 14 homes and one business.

Connections can’t be made along a force main line due to pressure within the line. A force main line is used to maintain adequate flow despite changes in elevation.

Some of the five county commissioners have voiced concern about the sewer line extension not serving property owners along more than 2,520 feet of the new sewer line.

Other officials have said the project cost would be much higher, plus the $1 million grant would be lost, if the scope was changed to allow serving property owners along more than the 2,520 feet of gravity sewer line.

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