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By Drew Finley (LFNC Fellow – Hendersonville)

February 18, 2020

While working on a project one afternoon in my office, I came across the following phrase: “Water and sewer lines are the arteries that nourish growth in a community.”

This sentence serves as the preface to the City of Greensboro’s policy for extending water and sewer service beyond the corporate limits of the City, and it is uncharacteristically lovely language for a municipal administrative policy document.

Normally, documents like these contain lots of bureaucratic and technical language (“All water and sewer extensions shall be designed and constructed in accordance with the City’s standard specifications and details… all extensions of water and sewer mains shall be dependent on adequate capacity within the existing system, approved funding, and receipt of all required permits and approvals etc.”).

The reason I know is because we at the City of Hendersonville Water & Sewer department are currently in the process of reviewing the extension policies of various utilities across the state as a way of informing the revision, update, and implementation of our own water and sewer extension policy.

This process can sometimes be painstaking because it requires a comprehensive review of previously adopted regulations, an evaluation of how those rules compare with current standard operating procedures, and detailed discussions between staff within and outside the department regarding what we want our revised policy to look like going forward.

This stage of the project represents the type of local government work that few citizens ever see or even think about: internal discussions at the staff level on what has worked well in the past and what could be improved in the future, meticulous research regarding how proposed policy changes can be appropriately implemented, and careful consideration of the input received from various stakeholders—from field operations personnel to the Water & Sewer Advisory Council, to name just a few.

But it is precisely these tasks (along with the more familiar steps such as final approval of the policy at a Council meeting) that ensure the orderly, manageable growth of cities and towns throughout North Carolina and across the country.

Reading Greensboro’s elegantly phrased utility extension policy reminded me of a recent publication from the American Water Works Association entitled, “Culture” by JournalAWWA Editor-in Chief Kenneth Mercer.

In this article, Mercer identifies the “charge of continuously providing communities with safe, clean water” as a “mission that underlies the core culture” of the water industry. As such, he concludes, each and every person working in this business is a steward of the public health (even if many who work in utilities may not necessarily describe themselves this way).

“Where people are cynical about government, the local water utility should provide a positive example of how things are intended to work,” Mercer tells us.

This statement is an important reminder for anyone who may attempt to declare that government has never worked for them or that our elected officials never get anything done. Every time you turn on the tap or flush your toilet, you are the embodiment of a governmental process that works exactly as it should: water and sewer service provision to as many as possible, irrespective of what you look like, where you live, or how much money you have.

Local government utilities define success in many ways, from key performance indicators such as the number of sanitary sewer overflows per 100 miles of pipe or the average number of leaks and breaks in the water distribution system per year.

These measures are invaluable data points for any utility, but they are small pieces of a much larger puzzle—namely, the indispensable project of cultivating a community that people care about and love.

As a Hendersonville resident recently observed in the City’s public input survey, “I have spent over half my life in this town, and I have seen the changes and the growth… I can vouch that as we have grown, we have always kept our community spirit intact because it is that spirit that makes so many people call this place home.”

At the end of the day, the job of local government (and of any profession that strives to improve the quality of life for all citizens in a community) can be encapsulated in the following excerpt from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much… to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”

I received this quote in my inbox from Denise Cumbee Long (the Executive Director of United Way of Henderson County) as part of United Way’s annual email to all its supporters at the conclusion of 2019, and I think it is an excellent way to think about the tremendous rewards that a public service career offers.

When a utility lays lines that allow for new residents to connect to public water and sewer infrastructure, we can be confident that these citizens will breathe easier because of the work we have accomplished together.