Southport has halted design work for its wastewater treatment plant while it reconsiders a sewer service agreement with Brunswick County.

City manager Bruce Oakley said aldermen may hold a special meeting in the coming months to possibly scrap those plans and continue with an expansion of the county’s sewer system.

The engineers for the city plant have been analyzing the cost of the project and comparing it to the cost of staying with the county system. Either project would cost around $26 million, but the county would provide 750,000 gallons per day while an independent plant could hold one million.

This past spring, the city terminated an agreement with the county after third-party engineers said 750,000 gallons would be “insufficient,” within 20 years.

But now, Southport is working toward a more accurate estimate of how much capacity it will need and when it will need it. City officials are also requesting clarification from the county of what happens once capacity is reached.

Oakley explained the city now has a better understanding of the contract, and some parts of the agreement could be renegotiated to make the city feel more at ease.

For example, the contract states that in the first 30 years it may only be terminated with the consent of the parties; after that, either party could choose to end the agreement during 10-year successive terms. Southport is requesting that any termination is mutually agreed upon.

The decision for the city to leave the county system and build its own plant came under fire in recent months, but Oakley believes the city would likely be at this point regardless of a heated public information meeting that took place in October. The meeting he refers to is one that felt more argumentative than informative when upset homeowners near the proposed site on Bethel Road filled the room. (The city later agreed to pursue a different location but has yet to confirm one.)

Oakley explained that at the time of the meeting, the engineers were already re-evaluating the costs and eventually decided to include a review of the county’s offer as part of the process.

“That’s where they saw some differences in the engineering we had done last year,” Oakley said. “That was a real brief report. This time, they wanted a deeper analysis.”

So far, the city has paid engineers Hazen and Sawyer $1 million for the city plant and also owes the county $1 million for engineering on the expansion before the agreement was terminated.

Since 2016, the city’s plan has been to pay for the solution to increasing sewer demands with a Clean Water Revolving Fund loan. Oakley believes the city will be responsible for the debt if it puts the money toward either project.

The city has been flip-flopping between the two options for years.

In the spring of 2015, the city was looking to purchase capacity from the county. Months later, the aldermen decided the city should construct its own plant instead.

Then, in April 2017, the aldermen reconsidered a county agreement but rejected to continue its plans. Two months after that, the deal was back on the table and the board voted to purchase 750,000 gallons of capacity for $25.7 million, which would cover the cost of the expansion. The city terminated that agreement this past spring.

Soon, it could be up to the board, including the three newly-elected aldermen, to decide the future of Southport sewer.