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Utility 'crisis' looms for NC towns that didn't get budget funding

Downtown Milton's historic storefronts and homes have led to the nickname "a museum without walls," but the town is struggling to find a solution to failing infrastructure.
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
Downtown Milton's historic storefronts and homes have led to the nickname "a museum without walls," but the town is struggling to find a solution to failing infrastructure.

Last year, state lawmakers spent about $2 billion to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure in small towns across North Carolina. But some towns were left out of the spending plan, and this year’s budget impasse will keep them waiting even longer.

One of them is the tiny town of Milton along the Virginia border, which features houses from the 1800s and the state’s newest historic site honoring furniture maker Thomas Day.

But while most of the buildings are well-maintained, that’s not true for the infrastructure underground that keeps the town’s taps flowing and toilets flushing.

N.C. Sen. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, represents the town and surrounding Caswell County. He's been working with local leaders to find a solution.

"The water and sewer situation in Milton is on the edge of a crisis," Meyer said. "Because they only have just over 100 ratepayers, they need about $7 million in funding, and they can't put all of that onto their ratepayers. The system is constantly breaking down, on the verge of collapsing."

Milton’s sewer system is powered by a series of tiny pumps designed to keep the town’s waste from contaminating the nearby Dan River. But those pumps haven’t been maintained well, and they now need to be replaced.

Meyer notes that the town also doesn’t have a secondary water supply, something that’s common in most utility systems.

"If they lost their connection to their primary water source, there's no backup for them, and so they're always kind of one crisis away from being completely screwed," he said.

Milton leaders worry that the town's restaurants and shops could close if water and sewer service becomes unreliable or unaffordable.
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
Milton leaders worry that the town's restaurants and shops could close if water and sewer service becomes unreliable or unaffordable.

Milton is seeking state and federal money to fix the system. Without outside help, Mayor Angela Daniel-Upchurch said the town is facing an existential crisis if it can’t provide basic services.

"You just can't tell the residents ‘we're sorry, you have to dig your own well, and do your septic tank, bye,’" she said. "How does that work?"

Part of Milton’s challenge in securing funding is political geography. Caswell County tends to vote Republican, but it shares a state senator and representative with Chapel Hill to its south.

Sen. Meyer is a Democrat. He said he’s reached out to Republicans and found Senate leader Phil Berger to be receptive to helping Milton’s utility problems. But he noted he doesn’t have the same clout as GOP senators in shaping budget bills.

"It shouldn't be who knows their legislator best or who has the most political access to get a favor done for them," he said. "We should have a system for figuring out which needs are the most pressing, how to fund them as quickly as possible, and then move on to the next ones."

Meyer said the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has a program to help struggling utility systems, but it’s underfunded because lawmakers would prefer to allocate individual grants themselves.

That meant that much of the infrastructure funding in last year’s budget went to towns and counties represented by Republicans.

Towns like Windsor in Eastern North Carolina had hoped they might get a share of additional utility money in this year’s budget. Town Manager Allen Castelloe said his town needs funding to update its sewer treatment plant and replace old water lines.

"Absolutely everything has gotten so expensive," Castelloe said. "We're in one of the poorest areas of the state, so we're limited on what people can afford to to actually pay. It's pretty critical that we get additional help."

Legislative leaders initially said they planned to fund more water and sewer projects this year, but the House and Senate adjourned without reaching a budget deal.

The House budget proposal had set aside about $550 million for a "regional economic development reserve." House leaders planned to allocate that money at a later stage of the budget process, but Berger likened the approach to pork spending.

"I don’t know, I thought I heard a faint oink when I read that," he told reporters last month.

With the budget stalemate, the next opportunity to get infrastructure grants from the state legislature might not come until next summer. In the meantime, the mayor of Milton is trying to get funding from the federal government.

"I filled out a federal grant, like $7 million that would just like refurbish everything," she said. "I know that's a crazy amount. It's even hard to think about or say."

If that doesn’t work, Daniels-Upchurch isn’t sure what options are left.

"Does Milton need to be a town? I think and hope so," she said. "But I'm at a loss, we're at a loss as to how to make the numbers work."

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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