City of Elkins May Be Ordered by the State to Take Over Water System in Whitmer
The water system in Whitmer, an unincorporated community in Randolph County, has been identified by the West Virginia Public Service Commission as a “failed utility.” Negotiations are under way between the Elkins Water Board and the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) on the terms of an “arms’ length” agreement that would enable Elkins to provide safe drinking water in Whitmer without asking Elkins water customers to shoulder the costs. Until those negotiations are complete, certain urgent maintenance and equipment needs in Whitmer have no clear source of funding.
Whitmer is a community of around 100 residents in Randolph County. The Whitmer water utility is managed by a water board called the Whitmer Water Association (WWA). In recent years, Whitmer water rates became insufficient to operate and maintain the system and, in the fall of 2022, the utility’s only two employees resigned, followed by all members of the WWA.
Because Whitmer is unincorporated, the closest unit of local government is the Randolph County Commission. In November of 2022, the commission informed the PSC that the community’s water system should be considered distressed or failing.
Under state law, the PSC has the authority to order another water utility to assume responsibility for distressed or failing water systems. In April 2023, the PSC informed the Elkins Water Board that it would eventually be required to take over the Whitmer utility, once the legally mandated process for shifting responsibility is complete. This process typically takes one year, so it is expected to be complete by April 2024.
On July 6 and September 21, the city approached the Randolph County Commission, still the closest local unit of government with responsibility for Whitmer, for assistance funding urgently needed repairs and upgrades to the Whitmer water system. The commission expressed willingness to help after all possibilities of assistance from the state government had been exhausted.
To explore what funding is available from the state before the takeover is complete, the Elkins Water Board connected the newly reconstituted WWA with the Region VII Planning and Development Council. The council was able to secure the WWA a Critical Needs Grant of $151,000 from the Infrastructure Development and Jobs Council (IJDC). The terms of the IJDC grant restrict it to the projects specified in the application; it has already been used to install modern water treatment control software in the plant.
It appears that, once the operating agreement between the Elkins Water Board and the WWA has been finalized, IJDC may be able to grant about $2 million in additional improvements and upgrades to the Whitmer water plant and distribution system.
However, no additional funding will be available from the state until the finalization of the operating agreement between Elkins and Whitmer sometime in 2024, leaving a question about how to fund certain urgently needed repairs, upgrades, and equipment purchases.
For example, the Whitmer Volunteer Fire Department is constructing a new building, for which it needs a new 6-inch fire service line. Without this service, the WVFD cannot complete construction and open the building, which is increasing the cost of construction. The Elkins Water Board recently submitted a funding request of $24,000 to the Randolph County Commission, to cover this work and long-delayed water tap installations for other Whitmer water customers. The commission recently denied this request via letter from commission president Dave Kiesling.
“The Elkins Water Board didn’t ask to be in this situation, and we are doing our best to figure out how to be of the best assistance we can be to our neighbors in Whitmer without unfairly impacting Elkins water customers,” says Mayor Jerry Marco, who is also the chair of the Elkins Water Board. “We have exhausted the sources of funding available to help Whitmer water customers until April, so we just aren’t sure where these needed funds are going to come from in the meantime.”
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