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Friel to begin work on Slaty Fork project

Thursday February 7, 2008
The Pocahontas Times

By Drew Tanner, Staff Writer

Anxious to have someone working locally on the project on a daily basis, the Pocahontas County Public Service District has contracted with Kermit Friel to be the project manager for the proposed regional sewage plant at Slaty Fork.

Friel, a Slaty Fork area resident, was hired by the PSD in March 2007 but he was not to begin work until funding for the position became available. The PSD tried unsuccessfully to get funding for the job through a Local Economic Development Assistance grant from the governor’s office. The application for that grant, however, required the approval of the Pocahontas County Commission, which declined to send the application along to Charleston last November. Commissioners noted that the paperwork specified that the grant could not be used for salaries.

In the contract approved at last Tuesday’s meeting of the PSD, Friel will work for the PSD on a fee-contingent basis for $50,000 a year. Under such an arrangement, Friel will not be paid until the PSD receives funding for the project. Friel will also be responsible for the cost of furnishing his own workers compensation insurance. The PSD will not be responsible for Friel’s salary if the project is not funded.

Board secretary Scott Millican said PSD attorney Tom Michael did not have the time to devote to project management, and that at $150 an hour, it was not cost effective for the PSD to put him in that role.

County commission candidate David Fleming asked if it was unusual for a project manager to work on a fee-contingent basis. Michael, who has worked with other PSDs on projects around the state, said it was the first time he was aware of such an arrangement, though it was typical of contracts with attorneys and project engineers.

The Slaty Fork project may have to overcome some additional hurdles, as the state’s Public Service Commission recently ruled that it would reopen the case in which it gave its approval for the facility.

Last August, the PSD asked the PSC to approve what the District considered to be minor changes to the project, including a $2.5 million advance on funding from the state’s Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council and the take-over of Snowshoe Mountain Resort’s sewage treatment facilities.

Michael said those changes wouldn’t affect the overall cost of the project or the rates that customers will pay. The takeover of the resort’s facilities would simply happen “sooner rather than later,” he said

In an order issued January 29, the PSC ruled that the changes do represent a change in the scope and financing of the project. The commission will reopen the case for the limited purpose of considering the new financing arrangement and the transfer of the resort’s utility.

The Commission requested that, by the end of the month, PSC staff file a memorandum concerning the changes. The staff of the PSC was directed to examine whether any physical or financial problems exist with the Snowshoe facility, whether the proposed financing is adequate to cover the project, whether the transfer of the Snowshoe facility is “in the public interest,” how the transfer will affect rate payers and whether any liability issues exist with regard to the Snowshoe facility.

Responses to the staff’s memo will be due 10 days after it is filed, according to the Commission’s order.

While ground has yet to be broken on the Slaty Fork sewage project, the PSD discussed plans for a potential water project with Randy Watson, of Thrasher Engineering.

In December 2005, the PSD and Watson looked into the feasibility of a water system that would serve much of the county north of Marlinton, with a water treatment plant located in Clover Lick. With a potential price tag of $15 million, the project was shelved.

Thrasher looked into a smaller project that would have served approximately 360 customers in the Cass and Green Bank areas and cost $10.46 million, according to Watson. Again, the cost was determined to be too high, he said.

The IJDC, which provides a major portion of the funding of such projects around the state, typically tries to limit the per-customer cost of projects to $20,000 to $25,000.

A project that Watson suggested may be more likely to receive funding would be a system that would serve the Green Bank area and residents along the North Fork of Deer Creek for $7 million. Such a system would be tied into the mains that serve Durbin, Frank and Bartow and be supplied by the existing Durbin water plant.

That project could be eligible for funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Appalachian Regional Commission, said Watson.

Alternatively, Watson suggested a system that would serve the communities from the base of Snowshoe Mountain, north along U.S. Route 219 to the Pocahontas-Randolph county line. That system would likely tie into the water treatment plant at Snowshoe Mountain Resort and cost approximately $1.75 million.

While it would only serve about 70 customers, Watson noted the potential for growth in the resort area, where several housing developments have sprung up in recent years. The higher incomes in that part of the county may make it harder for the project to qualify for grant funding, he said.

Millican asked if it was possible to pursue state funding for both the Green Bank area project and the resort area project, but Watson said the state would only consider one application per year for the Small Cities Block Grant program.

Watson added that he wanted to run the cost estimates again, as the price of pipe has recently gone down substantially.

Before jumping into another water project, treasurer Mark Smith said the PSD should focus its energy on repairing the existing Durbin water system. Leaky pipes in the Durbin system lose more than 15 percent of the water treated at the plant, by Watson’s estimates. Durbin area customers have experienced a string of rate increases, some of which have been aimed at providing money to repair the system. However, monthly financial statements reviewed at each PSD meeting consistently show little money left over at the end of each month.

Plant manager Ricky Barkley said leaks have been repaired as they are discovered, but estimated it would take as much as $250,000 to replace all of the faulty lines.

The board asked Watson to come to its meeting at the end of this month with estimates of the repairs to the Durbin system, as well as his revised estimates of the other water projects.