The state of West Virginia appears poised to approve an agreement that will facilitate more cooperation between the Grant and Tomlinson Public Service Districts.
The two districts border each other and, together, provide water service to nearly 2,000 customers in northern and central Hancock County - Grant to rural customers in Chester and Newell, and Tomlinson to customers in New Manchester and New Cumberland.
Both districts buy water from other sources - Tomlinson from the city of New Cumberland and Grant from the Newell Co. - and resell it to residential and commercial customers.
In March, the districts' boards petitioned the West Virginia Public Service Commission for approval of an Operation and Maintenance Agreement that would enable the districts to share equipment and personnel on major projects such as water main breaks.
While not the same thing as a merger, the agreement gives Tomlinson PSD General Manager David Stevens the authority, as a consultant, to carry out the agreement for both districts.
Hancock County commissioners have endorsed the agreement and committed to pay up to $70,000 a year for two full-time staff members, including Stevens as general manager of both districts and Jack McIntosh as manager of distribution and maintenance, and $25,000 for the replacement of a water pump and other infrastructure improvements.
The county's financial commitment is for two years, giving time for the increased wages to be assumed into the districts' rate schedules.
In papers filed with the state PSC, Stevens describes the agreement as necessary to address nine "serious issues" in Grant PSD.
"We hope the (PSC) will realize we are working hard, and successfully I might add, to solve these problems. We hope the Commission will work with us as a partner and understand that emergency action needed to be taken," Stevens said in response to a series of written queries from the PSC.
Now, a final memorandum recently filed by PSC staff expresses support for the agreement.
"Staff believes that the terms and conditions of the (agreement) are reasonable, does not adversely affect either public utility and is in the public interest of both public utilities' customers," a memorandum from staff attorney Ronald E. Robertson Jr. said.
Robertson's memo quotes approval from PSC engineer Jim Weimer and utilities analyst William A. Nelson.
"The (agreement) is an important step in correcting many operating and maintenance problems with the Grant PSD," Weimer said, "and is similar to agreements adopted by other public service districts."
Stevens said final approval is not far behind.
"They're anxious for PSDs to work together like this," he said, noting that the agreement may be a sign of things to come.
"For a number of years the Hancock County Commission has been interested in combining all three water PSDs in Hancock County," Stevens told the state PSC.
It's a future that Grant PSD board member Ed Huff is not enthusiastic about. Huff was the only board member, of either district, to vote against the agreement. Each district is governed by a three-member board - boards which retain their autonomy under the agreement.
But Huff said he's convinced the agreement will hurt the Grant PSD by diverting resources and manpower away from the district.
"The main thing is the service to the customer is going downhill," he said.
Huff said one example is the reduced office hours now in effect at the Grant PSD office, 2827 Sixth St., Newell. The office used to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week, and is now open from 1-4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
Stevens said the reason for the reduced hours is so that office staff have more time to work without interruption. He said customers can drop off payments in a lockbox on the door 24 hours a day, seven days a week.