An engineering firm recommended that Elkin assume ownership, operation and maintenance of Ronda’s water system after completing a feasibility study on the potential merger.

W.K. Dickson Co. concluded that if this isn’t politically feasible, Elkin should at least operate and maintain the Ronda system under an intergovernmental agreement with Ronda.

Results of the Charlotte-based company’s study are in 68-page report released to Ronda officials in May. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) funded the study with a $50,000 grant to Ronda in February 2020.

The report said DEQ grants of up to $3 million are available for improvements to water systems being combined if one is considered non-viable. Although the Ronda system is on the state’s list of non-viable water systems, ownership of the Ronda water system would have to be relinquished to Elkin to gain this grant.

The report said Elkin should assume ownership of the Ronda water system in phases. The study found that combining the two water systems will result in maintenance efficiencies and economies of scale leading to lower rates.

“The Town of Ronda understands that it must… either make a significant capital investment to construct additional water supply wells with no guarantee that they will be able to produce water in sufficient quantities for the future or formalize a long-term agreement with the Town of Elkin for their water supply needs,” the report stated.

Ronda already buys over half of its water from Elkin through a waterline connection with a booster pump installed along N.C. 268 in Wilkes, near the Elkin town limits, in 2012. The report said Ronda bought an average of 37 million gallons of water per day (MGD) from Elkin in 2019, while producing an average of 34 MGD from its one functional well.

It said Ronda had 365 water customers as of June 2019, including East Wilkes Middle School and East Wilkes High School.

“The majority of the physical infrastructure for a merger is already in place and demonstrates that the Town of Elkin has the ability to serve” the Ronda area, the report stated. Elkin also “provides operational support to the Town of Ronda on an as needed basis.”

The Elkin Water Treatment Plant produces an average 1 MGD, but has capacity to produce up to 3 MGD. The plant draws raw water from a 60 million-gallon reservoir on Big Elkin Creek. The Elkin water distribution system includes four water tanks with 1.9 million-gallons of storage capacity, four pump stations and 67 miles of water lines ranging in size from 2 to 16 inches.

The report said that Ronda’s failure to submit mandatory annual audits of town finances to the N.C. Local Government Commission put the town, including its water system, at risk of being taken over by the state.

As of April, Ronda’s audits for fiscal 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 hadn’t been submitted to the LGC. Ronda officials said this resulted from problems experienced by the company doing the audits.

Ronda Mayor Rheajean Benge said Ronda officials are currently reviewing the report.

Benge and Ronda Commissioner Kevin Reece weren’t on the board when the study began.

Reece said Friday that his impression from reading the report was that W.K. Dickson believed Ronda officials supported a merger of the Elkin and Ronda water systems when it conducted the study.

Reece has suggested potential ways to secure additional well water within Ronda for the town’s water system.

Reece also reached out to Wilkes County government officials and Phil Trew, director of planning for the High Country Council of Governments, for input on the proposed merger of the Ronda and Elkin water systems. He said input from Ronda citizens also is being sought.

Ron Niland, Ronda’s management consultant, said the full Ronda board will discuss the report.

Elkin Town Manager Brent Cornelison said Monday morning that he hadn’t yet seen a copy of the report.

W.K. Dickson concluded that the three main challenges facing Ronda’s water system are:

• difficulty hiring and keeping certified staff to operate and maintain the water system without outside help, which Elkin provides. The report said Ronda’s part-time operator in charge, who gets water samples, adds chemicals and does monthly reports, is nearing retirement. Ronda also has a fulltime maintenance person and a part-time maintenance person who both read, install and remove water meters and repairs water line breaks; and a part-time administrative who handles billing;

• lack of long-term water sources, except for buying water. Only one of Ronda’s three drilled is still operational, but is steadily producing less water. The report said a new well for Ronda would cost about $740,000. It said one of Ronda’s two water storage tanks needs repairs;

• lack of financial viability. The report said, “With a very small customer base, no significant growth and a high percentage of low‐income residents, the Town of Ronda is concerned about the long‐term financial health of its water system.”

The report said the study included workshops with Ronda and Elkin officials for discussion of “perceptions, problems, concerns and operations regarding the potential merger” of the two water systems.

Potential management systems for a combined Elkin and Ronda system also were discussed.

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