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North Carolina budget has $2 billion for water and sewer, but not everyone gets a share

The Moore County town of Pinebluff, population 1,500, is getting
Town of Pinebluff
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The Moore County town of Pinebluff, population 1,500, is getting $5.2 million in the state budget to upgrade its aging water system.

The recently approved state budget includes about $2 billion to improve water and sewer systems. The money will help about 200 mostly rural counties and towns across North Carolina.

State leaders have talked for years about the need to fix crumbling infrastructure across the state. The $30 billion budget that passed last week sets aside what’s likely the largest amount ever to deal with the problem.

House Speaker Tim Moore says the funding is needed to bring jobs and growth to struggling areas.

"That is so huge, in some of these communities where they want to grow, where they want to bring industry, where they want to bring businesses, but they don't have the capacity to take it in, and they don't have the ability to afford to upgrade their systems," Moore said. "And that's where a lot of your rural areas are really challenged."

One example is Pinebluff, a town of about 1,500 people in Moore County. It wants to benefit from the growth of nearby Southern Pines, but it’s dealing with a water system that’s more than 50 years old. Those aging water lines have broken several times in recent years, temporarily shutting off drinking water.

Pinebluff will receive about $5 million in the budget to replace eight miles of old water lines. Town Administrator Melissa Adams says the money is a "game changer" because it’s too small to afford a project like that on its own. The town’s annual utility budget is only about $600,000.

"We were not going to be able to do that without some sort of outside funding source," Adams said. "It can’t come at a better time."

While everyone agrees that state funding for utility infrastructure is sorely needed, some lawmakers aren’t happy with how the money was allocated.

Democratic Sen. Graig Meyer’s district includes rural Caswell and Person counties. The city of Roxboro in Person County is getting $26 million from the fund, but Caswell won’t get any.

"This budget takes most of the money that has traditionally been available through a competitive grant process for wastewater facilities and turns that money into direct appropriations, thereby picking winners and losers of who gets to have improvements to their wastewater systems," Meyer said. "I don't think that's the right way to govern North Carolina."

Moore says House lawmakers were asked to submit funding requests from their districts, and then his staff scored each project to determine which ones got funding.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

"We had staff look at a number of factors," Moore said. "One, is it related in some manner to job development? Well, public health was number one, if you had truly a water system that was failing, and they didn't have access to it. So that was the highest priority. The second was if it was job development, job recruitment, economic development."

But most of the counties and towns that got a share of the $2 billion are represented by Republicans in the legislature.

The only two towns in Wake County that received funding are Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs, and they’re in the only district held by a Republican, Rep. Erin Paré.

A WUNC analysis found that only about 5% of the funding is going to areas that are represented exclusively by Democrats. And most of that money is headed to Chatham County to help provide infrastructure for the Wolfspeed semiconductor plant.

Still, Moore points to the Chatham County example when asked about the discrepancy in which places received funding.

"So, it's not politics," Moore said. "I mean, the member who represents Chatham County is Rep. (Robert) Reives who voted against the budget. Which, by the way, I don't understand why you’d be voting against a budget with $75 million for your district."

Counties represented by legislative leaders and budget writers are getting big shares of the $2 billion. Moore’s hometown of Kings Mountain will receive nearly $40 million, while the tiny Rutherford County town of Bostic in his district will get more than $1 million. That works out to nearly $4,000 for each resident of Bostic.

Senate leader Phil Berger’s Rockingham County will get about $55 million, with an additional $4.7 million for the small town of Stoneville, $7 million for his hometown of Eden, $4.5 million for the town of Madison and $4 million for the town of Mayodan.

Meanwhile, first-term Rep. Lindsay Prather, D-Buncombe, says she wasn’t asked what the rural communities in her Buncombe County district might need.

"As a party, we were certainly not consulted," Prather said. "As an individual, I was absolutely not consulted."

Among the other big winners of grants from the $2 billion water and sewer fund:

  • $12 million to the Union County town of Wingate, population 4,000
  • $23.6 million to the city of Wilson
  • $2.5 million to the Robeson County town of St. Pauls, population 2,000
  • $10 million to the Montgomery County town of Star, population 800
  • $12.8 million to the town of Selma in Johnston County
  • $85 million to Randolph County
  • $18.6 million to Northampton County
  • $20 million to the Wayne County town of Eureka, population 200
  • $69 million to the Cabarrus County Water and Sewer Authority
  • $14 million to the Bladen County town of Bladenboro, population 1,600
Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.