Carolina Beat

It’s all too easy to criticize whatever governments do, whether local or otherwise. Conversely, worthwhile projects and ideas that come from government are often buried in the little-read sections of the local newspaper. But sometimes, when the local, state and federal governments get together on a good idea, even the best of intentions end up leading us down bizarre paths that make little sense and cost a lot more money.

Yadkin County leaders had a good idea. Working with a federal grant-hunting enterprise called Capital Link, they saw an opportunity to extend a water line from the town of Yadkinville to the suburb of Courtney on Highway 601, about five miles away.

The grant would cover about $800,000 of the cost. The county would provide a 50 percent match, and water service would be extended into an area that has a school and a growing residential community.

The state Department of Transportation also had a good idea. The DOT was going to be working on Highway 601 anyway, so why not add the water-line expansion to its contractor request? The agency even agreed to install the water line while it worked on the highway. All told, that would save the county an estimated $150,000 to $300,000. The highway would be expanded, and water service would be in place for years to come. Smiles were coming from all around.

But as with most fairy tales, trouble was soon brewing. Once the locals began informing state and federal officials about what they planned to do, things went into a tailspin. The U.S. Economic Development Administration, which was providing the grant money, required the county to hire its own contractor. But then the state said it could not allow the county to build the road.

The N.C. DOT was willing to oversee the project, but federal officials wouldn’t let them. Thus, two levels of government created enough red tape to poison a great opportunity. Of course, having two contractors working in such close proximity would create the potential for more disagreements and delays. But the really bad news was that the local government wound up stuck with the bill — perhaps having to cough up an extra $300,000 to pay for the additional contractor and work.

Meanwhile, area residents — hearing about the increased cost projections — began to wonder if the city/county leadership was trying to pull a fast one. But it’s important to recall that things were going fine until federal officials said, “We don’t play well with others.”

At this writing, the EDA still won’t allow the DOT to work on the project. So bids are going out and being reviewed that will ultimately have to be paid by local taxpayers — the very folks the original proposal was designed to help. And one can only hope the local legislative delegation in Raleigh is paying some careful attention to this mess, because it will happen again. This type of opportunity is rare, but it will become more commonplace as communities seek out companies like Capital Link to help them snare federal grants.

Yadkin County citizens and leaders are to be commended for trying to show some creative vision and work out the kinks in this sticky situation. I hope they’re successful, because we can’t afford to let opportunities like this pass us by. If they’re not, however, it portends yet more difficulty in the future for cities and counties across the state.

When local, state and federal resources are seamlessly pooled, it can result in increased efficiency and substantial savings. But it would be a shame if Yadkin County wound up having to waste precious local tax dollars because of pointless red tape. A project of this magnitude should serve as a model of how to do things — not a warning to stay away.

[Chad Adams is director of the Center for Local Innovation at the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. Formed in 1990, the independent, nonprofit think tank describes its mission as working “for truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina.” Adams, who is vice chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, lives with his wife on a fifth-generation family farm in Sanford, N.C.]

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