Guest opinion: water issue critical to future

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A friend of mine asked me the other day, when I brought up the subject of the controversial Public Facilities Board (PFB): "What's so bad about it? They just want to get water out to the county."

My friend is right -- the members of the PFB want to build a county-wide system to pipe water out to rural parts of Carroll County. That's what they want to do.

We all know from experience, though, that "wanting" to do something is never enough. To reach a difficult goal -- and building a vast county-wide water network will be very difficult -- the leaders of that task have to do their homework. They need factual, accurate answers to basic questions right from the start: How much needs to be built? Who needs water? Where does the building need to begin? What is it going to cost?

The issue of calculating the cost -- wisely and accurately -- is so essential to the success of any big project that Jesus centered a parable around it: "For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?"

Whoever builds a water network for rural Carroll County will be building towers -- and pumping stations and storage buildings and mile after mile after mile of pipe. They will be making decisions about who gets water, when they get water, if they ever get water. They will decide how to spend millions of dollars in state and federal tax money for the next two decades. And, much like those who determined where electric lines would go back in the 1940's, they will decide how Carroll County grows, where it grows, and for whom it grows, for the next 50 years.

And there is more to calculating the cost of all of this than just adding up the dollars. There's the cost of good will, and of the people's trust. Is the way the PFB is going about this adding to good will and to the people's trust in this project, or is it depleting it?

I do know that I've been to most of the PFB's public meetings and board members still don't have answers to the most basic questions. They haven't surveyed the water needs of Carroll County. Originally, they planned to start piping water to land owned by some of the board members, but the plans keep changing.

They say they don't "intend" to take over existing water systems (like the one at Holiday Island), but then they say that the law does, indeed, allow them to do that. They don't know yet what they would charge their customers for water, but they "hope" to keep it affordable. They don't know how they'll use their extensive power of eminent domain, but they will use it if they need to, and they say they don't want to pay for land that they do claim.

All these questions truly seem to annoy them -- and that saddens and worries me. Those of us who have been asking questions were, in a recent ad by "Friends of Rural Water", painted as obstructionists and saboteurs. I don't understand that. Part of good planning is asking questions about the challenges ahead.

One of the board members said at last week's meeting, "I think about the good things. I don't think about the bad things." But if you don't think about potential problems, they'll catch you by surprise -- sometimes in the worst, most costly ways.

I don't like criticizing the board members of the PFB. I've known several of them most of my life and I respect all of them as hard-working people. They want a water network for Carroll County, and, in their enthusiasm, they want it to start right now.

But as a national reporter I have covered so many stories, so many angry public hearings, that came as a result of too-little planning and too-much urgency. People got in a hurry, didn't do their homework about how they were going to handle all the money and power and tasks coming their way -- and things started coming apart.

The Public Facilities Board, as created by the Carroll County Quorum Court based on Arkansas law (14-137-100), has astoundingly broad powers (to build not just a county-wide water network, but to "issue bonds" and to build -- among other things -- "sewer facilities," "energy facilities," "residential housing.")

And the PFB has little if any public oversight (it can do "any and all other things necessary or convenient to accomplish the purpose for which the Board has been created" and state law specifies that the powers of the PFB are not subject "to the supervision or regulation or require the approval or consent of the state, or of any municipality, county, or political subdivision of the state, or of any commission, board, body, bureau, officials, or agency of the state or any municipality, county, or political subdivision.")

Holy Smokes. The members of this PFB board insist they are going to be very careful with all that power -- that they're going to be "neighborly." But what is a Carroll County Public Facilities Board of the year 2021 going to do with all that power? The answer to that question will matter to your children and grandchildren. Very much.

My point is this: Most counties in Arkansas with a rural water network didn't use a PFB to build it or to run it. It's almost unheard of in this state. And there's a reason for that -- a PFB grabs enormous amounts of power and is almost impossible to undo, except through an election like the one here Feb. 8.

There are better, safer, and quicker ways to start getting water to rural Carroll County. Please take the time to read about it, get the facts, and make an informed decision when you vote. I would ask you -- for the sake of your children and grandchildren -- on Feb. 8 to vote "Against" the referred ordinance that created the Public Facilities Board.

Erin Hayes