In NC, private water and sewer companies have focused until now on acquiring small rural and suburban systems, not city owned systems. However, privatization efforts here and throughout the country are intensifying as the demand for water, and its value as a commodity, increase. The pattern may be changing; private corporations are now approaching some NC towns about buying or operating their water and sewer utilities. Many NC towns have significant infrastructure repair needs, making sizeable bids from private companies seem attractive as short-term budget solutions. In other states, though, these deals have often led to worse long term financial situations for local governments, unfulfilled contracts, as well as higher rates and poor service for water and sewer customers.
Houston-based Ni America, founded only in 2008, recently offered $4.1 million for Tryon, NC’s water/sewer system. The company says that small systems with infrastructure needs like Tryon’s are its “specialty.” But Ni wouldn’t have been courting Tryon for two years unless there were potential profits: “We would love to be in North Carolina,” said company representative Stan Jones. Residents worry that Ni America could choose to sell Tryon’s water to other regions; the town is near a number of drought-prone zones to the south. Town leaders want to thoroughly study their budget and infrastructure needs before reopening talks with Ni America, and CWFNC is sharing our research on the history and impacts of private acquisitions with them. They plan to ask for public input as soon as they have further reviewed the options: keeping the systems, selling them or joining in a county-wide regional approach. Including the community in the decision-making process early is a crucial step, and an example of one of the primary benefits of public water/sewer system ownership: a level of accountability to local customers that private, for-profit companies aren’t required to provide.