County Hosts Second Meeting on Water Alliance

With a little more than two weeks remaining on a deadline to either pony up to join a regional water authority or risk being left in the lurch on future water sales, Fairfield County Council hosted a work session Sept. 5 to gather information from Margaret Pope. Pope is an attorney with the Pope Zeigler law firm, which, along with the Santee Cooper energy company, is assisting the Town of Winnsboro in forming the authority.

Pope addressed a similar meeting July 9 hosted by the Town of Winnsboro, but scheduling conflicts prevented County Council from attending as a whole. Two County Council members – David Brown and Carolyn Robinson – did attend the July 9 meeting in an unofficial capacity.

Since the July 9 meeting, the Town has received positive responses from the Town of Ridgeway and Mid-County Water to joining the Town of Winnsboro in the Regional Water Supply Authority for Fairfield County. The Town of Blythewood, according to Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy, has also come on board, even going so far as to send in their $5,000 fee, which buys them a seat on the charter committee. The Jenkinsville Water Company, meanwhile, has indicated no interest in participating, while the Mitford Water Company is locked into a 40-year contract with Chester County for the purchase of their water supply.

A lack of total unity on the water front is something County Council Chairman David Ferguson said could be problematic.

“According to our representatives in Washington, until we get one entity that supplies water for this county the grants would not be forthcoming,” Ferguson said at the Sept. 5 meeting. And grants and low interest rates are essential, Ferguson said, for growing and maintaining any water system.

“Unless we could get specifically low rates, we would be hard pressed to run lines to the entire county,” Ferguson said. “We would have to know we could get those lower costing loans.”

The chances of gaining access to those grants and low-interest loans, Pope said, would be greatly increased through a central water authority.

“I promise you, your chances of doing so are greater together than alone,” Pope said.

The Town of Ridgeway, although represented at the July 9 meeting, did not attend the Sept. 5 meeting. Ridgeway Mayor Charlene Herring, reached by phone last week, said a last minute scheduling conflict prevented her from attending and added that Ridgeway Town Council was to vote on the issue at their Sept. 13 meeting. Herring echoed Pope’s assessment of the need for a central entity in order to secure funding.

“We are very interested (in joining),” Herring said. “We do need this water authority, so we can have more power to get grants and loans.”

But in order for Ridgeway to pay its way into the water authority, Herring said the Town would have to dig into its savings.

Under the proposed plan, members will be expected to contribute $5,000 to a Charter Committee bank account to raise capital for incorporating costs. If at least $15,000 hasn’t been raised by the Sept. 30 deadline, the entire project goes up in smoke.

“If we haven’t raised that money by the September deadline, then the Town will probably have to look at phasing distributors off the system,” John Fantry, special counsel to the Town of Winnsboro, said last month. “It is a ‘pay to play’ system. If Winnsboro is the only one putting up any money to do this, if other people aren’t committed, then we’re going to have to take care of ourselves, and that means cutting people off of wholesale water.”

Mid-County Water, while they have expressed an interest in joining the authority, is currently unable to do so under their current structure, Pope explained.

“You must be a political subdivision in order to join a water authority,” Pope said, “so Mid-County would have to convert to a Special Purpose District.”

And that is not as difficult as it sounds, Pope said.

Once everyone has paid into the authority, Ferguson wanted to know how the benefits would be meted out and how capital costs would be divided among the membership.

Pope said part of forming the authority would include each entity outlining how much water they would require. The contract would include how much water the plant could pull and how much water the plant could deliver in a 24-hour period.

“If you owned a third of the capacity, then you paid for one-third of the cost,” Pope said. “Whether you used it or not. It is a great way for everybody to take a good look at themselves in the mirror and say ‘How much capacity do I really want?’ because it’s ‘how much do I really want to pay for’.”

Operational costs, Pope said, are usually divided according to how much water any one entity is pulling out of the system, compared to how much total water is being pulled from the system by all entities combined.

“If you buy a lot, but initially you don’t pull a lot, your operational costs may be smaller and your capital costs may be larger,” Pope said.

The most difficult part of the process, Pope said, was hammering out the contract between the participants. And the contract, she added, is where all the assurances are as to how much water members can look forward to. For example, Pope said that in Anderson County – a water authority she also helped guide into existence – a member has a right to a certain percentage of water. The member can sell that water to other members freely, but to sell it to someone outside of the authority it must first offer that water to the other individual members.

Water authorities are on the rise in South Carolina, Pope said, with at least 100 of them across the state, and the bylaws governing them can be as restrictive or as broad as the membership desires.

“A water authority is a great way to share costs,” Pope said, “and a great way to have an investment in something that is going to benefit many people beyond just one entity.”