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Council grilled about water issues

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Rocky Mount residents are going to get a chance to hear an update in the future about the city's sewer and water system.

Councilman Richard Joyner made the request after Nehemiah Smith and council candidate Elaine B. Williams spoke during the public comment period at Monday’s council meeting. City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said she would provide a report.

Both Smith and Williams made reference to the July 8 council meeting, when Rich Worsinger, formerly the city's utilities director, said he believed Rocky Mount is in danger of becoming the next Flint, Mich. Flint was the scene of a water crisis from 2014-16, with residents there being exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

Smith told Mayor David Combs and the council members on Monday that for some time in the council chamber — which he called "the true public square" — there has been debate of seemingly every decision made by the council and Small-Toney.

Smith said he believes the overarching themes for some have been corruption and the need for fiscal responsibility, prompting calls for state audits and criminal investigations.

"And no matter how many times that it is said that there is no there there, it persists," Smith said.

"At the last city council meeting, a most disturbing thing happened," Smith said. "An irresponsible, perhaps disgruntled former city employee who was the gas and electricity man got up and talked about water. Hmm.

"As a part of irresponsible’s presentation, he implied that Rocky Mount was in danger of becoming the next Flint, Mich.," Smith said. "Some citizens have run with that and are now saying that Rocky Mount's water is unsafe, but let's look at what irresponsible didn't say or tell you."

Smith told the mayor and council the North Carolina section of the American Water Works Association and the North Carolina member association of the Water Environment Federation have a best drinking water competition.

He said the third place recipient in 2005 was Rocky Mount, the second place recipient in 2009 and in 2011 was Rocky Mount and the first place recipient in 2004 and in 2010 was Rocky Mount.

He went on to state he believes the council needs to rebuke Worsinger's statements and reassure the citizens the water in Rocky Mount is safe.

Williams said she would like new Water Quality Services Superintendent Amanda James to provide an update about the quality of the water.

"He (Worsinger) left us confused — and I don't think that needs to be out in the airwaves without something coming to counteract that," Williams said.

Williams called for the city leaders to pull something together with someone from the water department to come give a better understanding of what's going on with the water system.

Joyner then asked whether the council could get a report on the water system to put city residents at rest.

Small-Toney said "absolutely" and added she would be proud to provide a report to the citizens.

Councilwoman Chris Miller said she believes Worsinger's remarks on July 8 had to do with infrastructure needs and whether the allocation of money should go to one project or to the accumulation of infrastructure needs.

Worsinger said he believed the council should take care of sewer system troubles instead of paying for a parking deck as part of a proposed hotel, residential and retail complex adjacent to the Rocky Mount Event Center.

During Monday's council meeting, Miller said Rocky Mount, like many other cities in the nation, has old infrastructure.

"It's been a long time since those pipes and conduits and ducts and so forth were put in under our city," Miller said. "And some of that was put before it was actually even a city.

"It was put in by the developers that were developing that land downtown," she said. "And a lot of that is in need of replacement, but they had nothing to do with the quality of the drinking water."

She said she believes this is where the confusion has come in. She said she looks forward to the municipal staff providing a report.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell, while noting he does not disagree with Miller, said, "The problem came with who made the presentation, coming from a perspective or perhaps authority" because of the past job Worsinger held with the city.

"And he did make a direct inference between Rocky Mount and Flint. That was intentional — and it was spoken in the public arena," Blackwell said, noting he believes there needs to be clarification.

Councilman Andre Knight was absent from Monday's meeting.

A Committee of the Whole meeting and a regular council meeting were set for Aug. 12, but the council members present canceled both because both conflict with an annual ElectriCities conference.