When he served on Capitol Hill, the late Jesse Helms was known as “Senator No,” a nod to his propensity for voting no on legislation. Let’s hope Smithfield’s Perry Harris doesn’t become known as “Councilman No.”
It’s not that we dislike Mr. Harris; to the contrary, he’s our favorite councilman because he is the lone consistent steward tax dollars in a town that’s too quick to spend them. It’s just that a “no” vote simply denotes opposition to a policy proposal; it doesn’t suggest a better alternative.
Most recently, Councilman Harris noted no on Smithfield’s 2016-17 budget. He said simply that Smithfield didn’t need to raise water and sewer rates. We think that’s the case also, but what Councilman Harris didn’t offer was an alternative way to pay for much-needed repairs to Smithfield’s aging water and sewer systems.
In particular, Smithfield’s sewer system needlessly costs customers some $1.64 million annually. That’s because cracks in sewer lines allow rainwater to seep in, and that otherwise clean rainwater then flows to the county’s sewage plant, where it must be treated, at considerable customer expense.
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We’d solve that problem by selling Smithfield’s water plant to the county and using the proceeds to repair the town’s broken sewer system. By the way, the county, many years ago now, offered to buy Smithfield’s water plant; town leaders said no because they considered the plant an asset worth keeping.
And the water plant would be an asset if Smithfield could sell its excess water to other Johnston towns, but it can’t because the county owns the water lines running to those towns, and the county doesn’t want a competitor in the water business.
It’s true too that Smithfield leaders have been poor stewards of water and sewer revenues. Had they been prudent, they would have annually placed water and sewer profits into a fund for system repairs, thus avoiding their current predicament. Instead, to keep the property-tax rate artificially low, they have annually transferred profits to the general fund, a practice that benefits the affluent at the expense of the poor.
Selling the water plant is our alternative to higher water and sewer rates, which Councilman Harris has rightly noted discourage families and businesses from moving to Smithfield. But if the councilman thinks he has a better way than rate hikes to make water and sewer repairs, then he should offer it. And if that way is truly better, then the rest of the council would be remiss if it did not follow his lead.
But so far, all Councilman Harris has said is no to water and sewer rate hikes. We’re not surprised that a majority on the council didn’t join him in that vote.