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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

The back and forth debate on a proposed Fibrowatt power plant in Surry County is way too complex to summarize in this space, although you can read some of the ongoing arguments here, here or here.

But no matter the reason, a majority of local residents are in opposition to the $140 million project, according to Yadkin Riverkeeper, an advocacy group for protecting the area’s river basin. The organization commissioned a telephone survey by non partisan Public Policy Polling, the results of which show overwhelming views against Fibrowatt or industrial development in general for the area. These findings would dispute county commissioners’ long cited claims that the majority of residents are in favor of the project.

When assessing any survey, however, it’s critical to look at the specific wording of the questions asked, especially with a complex topic like this. County commissioners say they’ve recieved complaints from those surveyed that the questions were skewed against Fibrowatt. I wasn’t surveyed myself, but I requested from Yadkin Riverkeeper a copy of the questions. I’ll report back if they’re sent over.

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First came the library defenders, now it’s landscaping advocates asking for mercy. The blowback of the Mount Airy city council’s ranking of essential a municipal services is that those who see their items of choice at the bottom are alarmed at what the final budget could produce. It started when former commissioner Tom Bagnal pleaded the council to spare library cuts, since that was among the items on the bottom of list.

This month Downtown Mount Airy Inc., a board that represents Main Street merchants, made a formal plea to the council not to cut landscaping in the downtown district, saying it greatly enhances their business and is a source of civic pride. Few would argue with either of those statements, but the question on the council’s mind is whether it’s a benefit that should be borne by general taxpayers.

There’s other potential services eyed for cutbacks, from certain benefits for city employees to sidewalk repairs to recreation programs for teens and senior citizens. We’ll find out in the next month which of those services has its own advocacy group.

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Anyone arriving at Thursday’s public hearing on a state prison in Surry County looking for some conflict on the issue, and my strong hunch is that WXII fell into that category, would have left fairly underwhelmed. While the TV news report does make note of some opposition to the concept of a prison, that was exclusively a byproduct of fierce objection to a Fibrowatt power plant near Elkin. Residents came to speak out against the plant, and with the prison public hearing next on the agenda, their comments bled over into general criticism about Surry’s economic direction.

But no one arrived Thursday specifically to voice objections to the prison, and other speakers revealed how the idea has gained favor among pretty much every elected official for Surry. As detailed in the March 6 Messenger, the area’s legislative delegation is now backing the project, and proponents continue to bend ears in Raleigh to give the county a leg up over other’s competing for the $100 million facility.

There was a huge elephant in the room, however, and that’s the great unknown of what sites the county could offer up the state for prison construction. Not just any piece of land will do. It’s got to be big (100-150 acres), near utilities, close to a highway network and not so expensive as to break the taxpayers’ back. Then of course you have the opposition almost certain to arise from those who live nearby.

With hundreds of jobs tied to this project, it continues to gain momentum in terms of support. But where exactly could a prison be placed? And will the search for that site, and the public hearings after one is selected, eventually grind the momentum to a halt?

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That’s not an original, or even a newly coined, metaphor to describe the prolonged debate over a Fibrowatt plant in Surry County turning poultry litter into electricity. Throughout the two-year recruitment process, public officials and environmental groups batted back and forth on whether the proposed $150 million plant would do more economic good than environmental harm. Those following it all heard this metaphor more than once from a variety of sources.

But a grassroots group that just bubbled up opposing the plant has a new metaphor, and a new argument, to throw into the sphere of public debate. It involves Surry County, with its attractive natural resources and tourist destinations, as the prettiest girl at the ball and the power plant as a chain smoking deadbeat trying to take her home. Simply put, new opponents think saying yes to the plant means saying no to possible growth in the tourism and retirement sectors, sacrificing a quick boost to the tax base for a more sustainable plan to lure new businesses through quality of life. And that’s only one component of the multi-faceted status of the plant, a crossroads detailed in the March 1 edition of The Messenger.

Nine months after Fibrowatt’s announcement to locate in Surry, the company is still looking for a power purchase agreement with Duke Energy, while the county is still firming up a multi-million dollar incentives package. There’s still rezoning needed on the proposed site and an air quality permit from the state before any construction can begin. With hundreds of residents just now adding their voices to the debate, and local government officials reiterating their strong support, expect a lot more unsavory metaphors in the next few months.

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old-houseIn Mount Airy, a surprising number would answer yes, given the volume and magnitude of the arguments during the past two years on whether to restore the 1920s-era home or bulldoze it to clear parking space for Reeves Community Center (seen in the background of this photo). The final public chapter, detailed in the Feb. 20 Messenger, had all the drama one would expect given the disproportionate amount of attention this issue has garnered at  city council meetings. Those opposed to selling the home for renovation broke out all the rhetorical stops, calling the action “one of the stupidist things government has ever done,” “A big mistake” and an “elimination of there every being expansion at Reeves for our children and our senior citizens.”

The vitrol was so strong that Brenda Cooke, who two weeks earlier was estatic about buying the house for $37,500 and spending as much as $150,000 to renovate it, got up moments before the vote and declared that she didn’t feel welcome on the street and had second thoughts about moving in. The council voted 3-2 to accept her offer anyway, and opponants followed that up by welcoming her to the street and offering to help her move. And thus closes (for now, just wait for the wrath if that home isn’t restored as promised) a prolonged saga of recreation vs preservation that took up more council meeting time these past two years than any other subject. May it stay closed and may Cooke find a real welcome and sense of community in her new home.

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We’re entering round two of Waste Industries’ attempt to lease the county’s landfill operations. After being soundly rejected by commissioners in 2003, the company is taking their case directly to the public this time via a petition and outreach campaign focused on economic development, as outlined in the Feb. 8 edition of The Messenger.

Taking the county’s waste collection and disposal services private isn’t a new concept. Waste Industries has a sizable presence across the southeast as does its competitor Waste Management. But there’s an element of local control lost when the county no longer can hire/fire its own employees, set rates or decide the scope of services. Is that control worth the millions county government would receive by leasing the landfill? How many residents say yes will likely determine whether a formal offer is made to a now firmly resistant board of commissioners.

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As President Obama’s stimulus package winds its way through Congress, Surry County government has put together its own plan of ready-to-go projects seeking some stimulus funding, as described in the Feb. 1 Messenger. The plan is now complete and being sent out to state and federal representatives. A quick summery of the contents, with price tags.

Surry Community College: North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology, $5 million; physical education building addition, $600,000; student service building addition, $1 million.

Surry County Schools: New central district elementary school, $12 million; east district middle school, $15 million, east district elementary school renovation, $2.5 million; purchase of warehouse office facility for use as a technology and training center, $500,000.

Elkin City Schools: Phase II of Elkin High School renovations, $7.3 million; Phase III of Elkin High School renovations, $3.8 million; up-fitting technology infrastructure, $200,000; replace energy management systems, $789,000; renovation/addition to Elkin High gym, $10 million.

Mount Airy City Schools: Mount Airy High renovations, $2.5 million; Fascia replacement at Mount Airy High gym, $100,000;cCafeteria Renovations, $525,000; HVAC controls, $225,000; roof replacement at Tharrington Primary School, $200,000.

City of Mount Airy: Interstate 77 NC/VA Welcome Centers sewer extension, $6 million; Piedmont Triad West Industrial Park water and sewer extensions, $1 million; Interstate district water and sewer extension $9.6 million; new aerial fire truck, $800,000; North Main fire station relocation, $1.2 million.

Town of Dobson: Dobson/Mount Airy water systems interconnection, $1.4 million; water/wastewater equipment and additional employees, $400,000; Construction of public works facility, $1.5 million; sidewalk repairs and equipment, $700,000; public safety capital equipment, $250,000.

Town of Elkin: Fire hydrant upgrades, $74,000; raw water main upgrade, $450,000; Memorial Park pump station, $285,000; Corporate Park gravity sewer, $350,000; pump station, force main and plant decommissioning for Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority, $538,000.

Town of Pilot Mountain: Water connection with city of King, $3.4 million; water connection to city of Mount Airy, $2.5 million; downtown utilities relocation, $1.3 million; sewer main replacement $684,000.

Surry County Government: Greater interstates water and sewer district, $10.7 million; water supply for central district elementary school, $1.7 million; Fibrowatt water and sewer line extension, $1.8 million; public safety capital equipment, $1 million; local non-profit capital grant initiatives, $2 million.

Some of these projects are big thinking — connecting all our excess water so it can be sold to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, who need it — while others seem like more mundane capital purchases and upgrades that have been taking place for decades. As of now, there’s some funding in the stimulus bill for infrastructure and school construction. But all that could change. And if the county’s Congressional representative has her way, the plan will be far less funding for this kind of stuff and far more in the way of tax cuts.

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