By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton supervisors voted Dec. 10 in favor of adding the county to a petition to join the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), following suit with the county’s five incorporated towns – Exmore, Nassawadox, Eastville, Cheriton, and Cape Charles.
“I don’t believe towns have the taxing power or the revenues to solve all of their own infrastructure problems themselves without support,” said Chairman Spencer Murray.
The petition will be submitted to the Northampton circuit court for a judge’s review.
Inclusion in HRSD, a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, will give Eastern Shore localities the option – but not the obligation – to transfer ownership of their public sewer systems to HRSD, along with the responsibility to run, maintain, and upgrade the systems and bill customers for service.
That option also will be open to privately owned sewer systems, like the one in Nassawadox, which was purchased by Riverside Health System when it operated the hospital there.
The hospital relocated to Onley almost three years ago, but the Nassawadox sewer system still serves customers in the Hospital Avenue area.
Supervisor Robert Duer was concerned. “So we’re going to take tax dollars and bail out … privately owned sewer systems?” he asked.
Chairman Spencer Murray said he didn’t know if the bailout would be funded with tax dollars or with money paid to HRSD by its 480,000 customers.
“We know where they get their money,” Duer said of HRSD. “They borrowed close to $300 million with DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) this year. So it’s our tax dollars.” Murray agreed.
Riverside is not allowed to abandon the sewer system, and DEQ has put “tremendous pressure” on the corporation to upgrade the system, Murray said.
“I’ve been swimming in this sewer up to my neck for quite awhile. It’s not an easy swim,” said Duer, who is also working on local sewer issues as Exmore’s town manager.
“I’m seriously worried about HRSD’s business model, including the perpetual rate increases,” he added.
Duer said if Onancock had raised its sewer rates as high as HRSD’s rates, Onancock “wouldn’t be in the problem they’re in today” – in debt about $4.5 million for its sewage treatment plant.
Onancock’s town council is elected and can be voted out for raising rates, but “we’re getting ready to hand over sewer pricing to a totally unelected bunch of people,” Duer said.
“I think nobody’s worked harder for Exmore than you have,” Murray told Duer. “You have an obligation to the people, 350 or so customers that you have now,” who are connected to Exmore’s sewer system.
“This board has to think not only about all the towns, it has to think about unincorporated areas. I’d like to think that somebody in Birdsnest, one of these days, with a failing septic system, is going to have some way … to possibly go along with several other residents to hook into a system,” Murray said.
A regional approach to infrastructure and spreading costs is “how electricity got to rural areas … nobody could afford to pay to have electricity brought a mile down the road to their house,” he continued.
Most of the localities across the Chesapeake Bay have joined HRSD, which are “low-lying counties, and they have exactly the same issues with wastewater that we have,” Murray said.
Duer also opposed the idea of a town like Exmore paying millions of dollars to expand its sewage collection system and turning over the asset to HRSD.
Supervisor John Coker said joining HRSD “doesn’t commit us to anything.” There is no commitment until a town negotiates and enters a contract with HRSD, he said.
“Can you get out just as easy?” Duer asked.
Northampton’s resolution to petition the court and join HRSD passed in a 4-1 vote, with Duer opposed.