In the past few years, the EFC has been asked to evaluate the different financial impacts of regionalization, from simple shared services agreements to full-on consolidation. Additionally, we have been evaluating barriers to and opportunities for the creation of new and different governance models. We have identified some key takeaways and, in the process, developed quite a few useful resources that might be of interest to communities or state and local leaders interested in moving the needle toward more regionalization in the water sector. Continue reading
Many organizations and government agencies have studied and written about the potential benefits of regionalizing* the provision of water and wastewater services, but progress implementing this management tool has been relatively slow in many states including North Carolina.
*The terminology used to describe the transition from a more isolated independent service provision model to one that is more integrated is not always consistent or standardized. The term regionalization is used here to describe a range of different collaboration mechanisms that are commonly found in North Carolina and across the country.
Regionalized service provision can range from the creation of a new water utility by combining or merging two or more utilities; one utility absorbing or acquiring other utilities; or multiple utilities that choose to remain autonomous to some degree but share components of service provision such as water supply or water treatment. Many regions that appear to be ideal candidates for regionalization remain served by independent and often isolated utilities and when regionalization does occur, it is often a laborious process that can take years of planning and negotiation. While many regionalized systems thrive once they are created, others fail to fully meet their goals and may encounter a range of challenges including fiscal distress, recurring political and public disagreements, and the occasional lawsuit.
In order to learn more about practitioners’ regionalization experiences, expectations, and concerns, a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted an interactive workshop at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The event was designed to share emerging research and solicit practitioner views. Funding for the workshop was provided as part of a National Science Foundation project (award no. 1360442) funded by the Water Sustainability and Climate program. The workshop was attended by approximately 75 participants comprised of utility management staff, consultants that work with utilities, non-profit technical assistance providers, and state funding programs. Participants included staff from the state’s largest water utilities that provide service to hundreds of thousands of customers, all the way down to smaller rural utilities serving as few as 1,000 customers. Twenty-six separate utilities were represented. The workshop included research presentations, facilitated group discussions, audience polling, and small group exercises. Continue reading
Co-authored by Liz Harvell
Across North Carolina, population shifts, flooding and drought, changes in industry and manufacturing, and the continuous move toward a reduction in overall water use has continued to create partnership opportunities for large and small water and wastewater systems alike. For large systems anticipating future growth, increased and more economically-savvy water supply may be accomplished through partnering with surrounding communities; smaller systems struggling with increasing costs and decreasing revenues may look towards partnerships with other systems to increase access to capital and reap the benefits of economies of scale. Systems that find themselves with excess capacity due to the loss of large industrial customers may view selling water or wastewater services to neighboring communities as the only realistic way of plugging revenue holes. And while general economic downturns and natural disasters continue to drive water and wastewater customers to relocate, making their systems no longer financially sustainable without some type of intervention, various partnership models are appearing more and more appealing.
While the number of models for creating water partnerships is as numerous as the number of reasons systems have for pursuing them, the most common tool for creating water partnerships in North Carolina is the interlocal agreement.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these agreements in place throughout the state, ranging from simple agreements intended to cover sale of water by Community A to Community B, to a complex series of individual agreements that when taken together can be used to create a consolidated regional utility model.
Earlier this summer, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (EFC) published Crafting Interlocal Water and Wastewater Agreements, a guide laying out important considerations for communities contemplating how a local agreement might benefit their community. Using the EFC experience of providing direct assistance to communities developing partnerships over the last 20 years, this guide identifies 21 key topics of governance, financial, and technical issues that are integral to the success of these agreements. Below are 10 key topics, but be sure to see the full guide complete, with examples: Continue reading
As utilities across North Carolina consider new ways of partnering with each other, including full consolidation, many are looking at the Water and Sewer Authority model as a potential governance structure. Local governments devolving water asset ownership and control to an Authority or other regional governance structure are often concerned about maintaining some form of control in input on essential services. Under the Authority model, local governments can continue to participate in governance by appointing members to the Authority board.
State statutes provide local government members with the ability to structure their boards to meet their local needs and conditions. Board structures vary across the state based on number of board seats, number of seats allocated to (appointed by) each member, and voting rights of members. In order to better understand the driving forces behind the existing structures, staff from the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed bylaws and articles of incorporation for all of the authorities, and additionally carried out informal interviews with individuals familiar with the board structures from many of the authorities.
The research focused on answering the following questions:
- What is the status of existing board representation structure for Authorities across the state relative to the communities they serve?
- What approaches were used to allocate seats on boards?
- Have boards been modified over the years and, if so, why and how?