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Only One of 20 North Carolina Communities Receive Water Infrastructure Funding

Associated Press Newswires
Copyright 2002. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, August 6, 2002

Edwards' hometown listed as Senate funding priority
By The Associated Press

Close to 20 North Carolina communities appealed to the federal government this year for help in upgrading their aging water and sewer systems, but only one made it onto a Senate panel's list of funding priorities.

Robbins, a tiny town of 1,200 people where U.S. Sen. John Edwards grew up, is now in line to receive $500,000 for improvements to its water-treatment plant.

Edwards' office says that the North Carolina Democrat did nothing more or less for his boyhood home in Moore County than for any other locality that sought help. But questions of favoritism have ben raised from some officials whose pleas were not answered this time.

"It's gaudy," said Morganton Mayor Mel Cohen, a Democrat whose city is eight times as large as Robbins and has also been seeking aid. "As mayor, I certainly wouldn't pave my street if there are other streets that may need to be paved first. It just doesn't look good."

The water and sewer projects were tacked onto one of 13 major spending bills moving through Congress this year. All told, more than 150 such projects - at a cost of $140 million to taxpayers - were "earmarked" by senators with no public debate.

Members of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee make decisions about which projects get added after getting input from colleagues.

Neither Edwards nor U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, sit on the committee. But this year, both pushed for more than a dozen projects.

Helms' office made overtures on behalf of 17 North Carolina communities - none of which were included.

Mike Briggs, a spokesman for Edwards, said the senator wrote letters to the committee for every North Carolina town or city that made such a request.

"I'm sure the senator's involvement stopped with signing the letters," Briggs said.

However projects are selected, "this is not a process based on merit," said Daniel Williams of the Center Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that opposes lawmakers' practice of earmarking favored projects.

Committee members tend to steer a disproportionate number of projects to their own states and those of colleagues up for re-election, Williams said.

Edwards has gained clout in the process recently, Williams said, because of his frequent mentions as a 2004 presidential contender.

Edwards' letters on behalf of Robbins sought nearly $1.2 million for a long list of upgrades.

"Taken together, the water infrastructure improvements will strengthen the town's ability to attract investment, promote economic development and provide high-quality services to its citizens," Edwards wrote.

If the committee's recommendation of $500,000 for Robbins is approved by the full Senate, the town will still need approval from the U.S. House, which is going through a similar process.

Edwards' staff released other letters Monday written on behalf of communities including Morganton, Gastonia, Albemarle, Granite Falls, Wilkesboro, Highlands, Henderson and Monroe - Helms' hometown.

The letter regarding Morganton asks for $500,000 and notes that the city invested more than $17 million in water and wastewater improvements in 1995 to meet the needs of textile plants and other industries there.

"Regrettably, since that time six major employers have closed plants in Morganton," the letter goes on to say. "Funding is needed to assist the city in meeting its debt and operational payments on the new facilities."

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