EARLY — For a few minutes Tuesday night, the Early City Council seemed moments away from deciding — although not unanimously — to build a new water treatment plant.

With that decision, the city would continue buying raw water from the Brown County Water Improvement District, treat the water for its citizens and sell some of it to the Zephyr Water Improvement District, if that entity chose to remain as Early’s customer. The city’s existing water treatment plant — near the end of its life, city officials say — would be closed.

Gone would be the proposal to install a 24-inch pipeline running from the water district’s treatment plant in Brownwood to Early, and start buying treated water. The water district has offered to use its labor to build the line.

But Mayor Bob Mangrum’s requested roll call vote stalled in mid-vote when Councilman Benny Allcorn abstained. “I’m not ready,” Allcorn said. Councilman David Gray quickly withdrew his motion for a vote on a new water plant, saying he didn’t want to vote “without the full participation of the council.”

The motion, then, was tabled for another meeting, nulling what had been a 1-1 vote — but momentum seemed headed for a likely 3-1 decision in favor of a new water plant.

Before Allcorn abstained, Councilman Pat Drew voted “yes” for the water plant. Councilwoman Janice Bush voted “no,” saying Early’s best long-term interest is with the pipeline. Gray and Allcorn had earlier made comments suggesting they would vote for the water plant option. The fifth council seat was vacated earlier in the meeting by William Kelcy’s resignation because he moved out of town.

Whatever the council decided to do, city engineer Ken Martin reminded the council before the thwarted vote, “you’re casting the die for a long time.”

A few weeks ago, council members had all but decided to get out of the water treatment business, take the pipeline option and buy treated water. Indications were that the Zephyr Water Supply Corp., which currently buys treated water from Early, would throw in on the pipeline.

But some of the council balked after learning the city will be required to pay a “back debt service” on $20.49 million bonds the City of Brownwood guaranteed for the construction of the water district’s new treatment plant.

Early officials have said they anticipate the cost of the back debt service would be in excess of $100,000, with the Zephyr district paying a third.

Mayor Bob Mangrum had said he believed building a new pipeline is the best option. The cost of a new water plant and pipeline would be similar, Mangrum said, but the pipeline would last longer and free the city from challenges associated with running the plant and dealing with ever-changing state regulations.

Early City Administrator Ken Thomas Thomas said either project would likely cost a total of $7 million to $8 million, with Zephyr paying $2 million of the cost of the pipeline, or $2 million toward a new plant — if Zephyr remained as a customer of Early.

Zephyr water board members attended Tuesday’s Early City Council members and listened quietly but intently as council members debated the issue.

“It’s time for the big one,” Mangrum said as he introduced the ninth item on the agenda — dealing with the water issue.

Martin, the city’s engineer, told council members he believes the best choice for the city would be the pipeline option. The annual costs to the City of Early would be similar with either option, Martin said. But the pipeline would have a capacity of 10 million gallons a day and be good for 50 years, while a new water plant would have a capacity of 3 million gallons a day and last 25 or 30 years before it needed upgrading or replacing, Martin said.

Martin also said the city would benefit from the “economy of scale” that would result from Early being part of a region-wide water system with costs spread over more customers.

But Gray said he had a problem with Early citizens being asked to pay a back-debt service for something they’ll never hold title to — the Brown County Water Improvement District’s treatment plant. Gray said if Early built a new plant that deteriorated after 25 or 30 years, a pipeline would be connected to the water district’s plant — and it would have the same issues as the Early plant would have, Gray said.

Gray was also concerned about a portion of the water district’s bonded indebtedness that would be passed on to Early citizens in water bills, if the city opted for the pipeline and began buying treated water.

Drew said the city would be surrendering independence if it bought treated water, and said it would be hard to reclaim that independence.

Allcorn said when it comes down to the city not being in control of its water, “I want to go on record as saying it scares me. I’ve taken this very, very hard. If we go with the pipeline we lose any control we’ve had,” Allcorn said.

Thomas and Assistant City Administrator Wayne Creel also spoke in favor of the pipeline. Getting out of the water treatment business, Thomas said, “would mean these (water plant operators) won’t have the headaches with the TCEQ breathing down their necks and saying ‘you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that.’”

With the pipeline option, Thomas said, “it would be the water district’s problem.

“ … The decision we make tonight is going to affect the City of Early and Zephyr for many years to come. We need to make the right decision.”

Council members asked to hear from the Zephyr water board. “We have, as you said, a big interest in this situation,” board President Richard Gist told the council.

“ We have agreed in principle to look at the water line. I would encourage the council to look very closely at the water line and the offer the district has made. Our board is supportive of the line but it’s got to be your decision.

“The buy-in was unexpected and a bullet to us, too.”