Sewer and Water

The “negotiations” between the town and county governments over how to provide water and sewer service to a bunch of non-existent but hoped-for customers just outside the town may have been going on for six years now, but you couldn’t prove it by the infantile display of power-grabbing put on in the Culpeper Regional Hospital board room last week. The county declared what it wanted, and the town what it wanted. “Is there anything you agree on?” one member of the small audience of development promoters asked. There wasn’t.

Nor, of course, could you use last week’s combat session (a term that suits it better than “negotiation”) as evidence that the residents of Culpeper County have any interest in seeing water and sewer lines spread around the county. A dozen or more people attended the meeting, in addition to the town and county government folks, but most if not all of them were people with business interests in “development.” Has the public been asked if it wants the water and sewer lines that its governments have spent so much time futilely bickering over? Is it possible that the town and county governments’ sheer ineptness might actually answer the public’s wishes to not see its farms turned into industries, its schools and roads into sardine cans, its tax rates into rocket ships?

The town and county governments made no discernible effort at the meeting to come to terms with the others’ desires. Each framed the other’s proposals in the worst possible light rather than looking for common ground. The county said it wanted a water and sewer authority, either for the whole county or just for the town environs, but would build county plants right next to the town if it had to. The town objected to the county building facilities or to a county-wide authority, hardly addressing at all the idea of an authority just for the town environs.

The county expressed its fear of having land annexed by the town, though it presented no evidence that residents don’t want to be annexed by the town. The town downplayed the deficiencies of its existing system, the debt it owes, the likely rate increases, the orders it’s under to make repairs – as if instead of trying to serve the public it was trying to peddle a used Lincoln.

Town Environmental Services Director Clarke Wallcraft stressed certain advantages in the county’s buying service from the town rather than building on its own. County Attorney Andrew McRoberts pointed out that some of these advantages applied also to an authority. “I can’t argue that point,” replied Wallcraft, looking defeated rather than encouraged. After a long pause, he said with an awkward grin, “But I don’t think we’re here to argue anyway.”

Yes, they were there to argue. County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Coates closed the meeting by noting that all of the supervisors had attended, a remark that visibly angered Town Council Member Bobby Ryan. Some of the council members had had the good sense to stay away.

I concluded that an authority would be needed before anyone could agree on forming an authority. Or perhaps someone should call the Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center. In any case, the comments from the Bidness-Man Peanut Gallery didn’t do much to move things along last week. “No one would run their business this way. It’s crazy!” was a predictable and typical remark. There are two things wrong with it.

First, businesses are run inefficiently and stupidly all the time. Who can be so blind as to not have noticed that? Unless we deny overwhelming evidence and take on faith the existence of some “Market Law” of social-darwinian elimination under which stupidity can never survive competition, we must admit that businesses can be as infantile as governments. Moreover, the trend toward mega-corporate monopolies today removes competition and any benefits it can bring, just the same as state-ownership would. The only difference between a local-government meeting and a board meeting in a corporation with a monopoly on its product is that the former must be open to the public. The latter is conducted behind closed doors where we usually can’t observe and report on its foolishness.

Second, a government should not try to be a business. A government’s goal should not be to make money. Wallcraft should not have to pretend his water and sewer systems are “self-sufficient,” as if they were properly behaved ex-welfare recipients. A government should represent the public. Has the public spoken during the past six years of “negotiations”? Perhaps if it did speak, the town and county would stop seeing themselves as competitors. Then, maybe, they could manage to work out a cooperative way to destroy the countryside. Or, just maybe, they would call the whole thing off.

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