Water Committee Gets Inside Info From S.C. Agencies

FAIRFIELD – As the steering committee for the formation of a Fairfield County regional water authority continues to hammer out the details of how such an organization would function, members of the committee heard from three other already established S.C. water systems during their April 3 meeting at the Midlands Technical College campus in Winnsboro.

Representatives from the Lowcountry Regional Water System, the Anderson Regional Joint Water System and the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency shared with the Fairfield committee the hurdles they had to overcome in order to establish their systems, and their opinions on whether or not it was worth all the effort.

Bill Clark, former Orangeburg County Administrator who serves on the Lake Marion agency’s board, said his group had both positive and negative experiences with the politics of organizing the system, but ultimately the system has been a benefit.

“When you get multiple counties and municipalities around the table, it’s hard to get them all to agree all the time,” Clark said. “It helps if you like politics, and it helps if you’re good at it.”

Once their agency was formed, Clark said, they found they had a group that carried significant political clout, one that represented Orangeburg, Clarendon, Berkeley, Dorchester, Calhoun and Sumter counties, as well as the town of Santee and the city of Sumter.

“It was worth it,” he said. “When we finally came to a group that began working together, we found that we had a pretty powerful coalition put together; not only to collaborate on the cost of developing the system, but politically we started encompassing multiple Congressional districts at the federal level, multiple House and Senate districts in Columbia, and we found we had a little bit of a powerhouse put together there that helped us with funding.”

One of the results was a new water plant on the shores of Lake Marion near the town of Santee that went into operation in 2008 debt-free.

“We would have never pulled that off if we hadn’t had a group of six counties working together at that time,” Clark said. “We could not have done what we have done at this point without having multiple collaborators in the process. It’s allowed us to share costs and develop the kind of political alliances we’ve needed to be successful.”

The Lowcountry system, said Fred Hannah, the agency’s engineer, is still a work in progress. It currently exists as a board that owns no assets. On May 1, all of the assets from the water systems of Hampton County and the towns of Brunson, Hampton, Gilford, Varnville and Yamassee will transfer to the regional system, Hannah said. Hannah said the smaller individual systems were gradually becoming overwhelmed with new, stricter regulations from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Also, he said, while the individual systems had capacity to handle domestic growth, they were not capable of handling any real industrial growth in the area, which is ripe for development with work beginning to get under way on the Port of Charleston.

“The benefits, short-term, are getting out of these regulatory compliance issues and consent orders,” Hannah said. “The longer-term benefit is to create both an operational reserve and a capital reserve to fund the long-term infrastructure we need for economic development capacity.”

Bill Hancock, a CPA with the West Columbia firm Brittingham, Brown, Prince and Hancock, LLC, which handles audits for the Lexington Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission, as well as a dozen other municipalities, said it is difficult for a small water system to bear the burden of state compliance.

“That becomes a fixed cost, along with your infrastructure costs,” he said, “and you end up having a small amount of people bearing a larger and larger burden.”

Hancock also said that a single joint system can cut out duplicate services and have a single licensed water operator, as well as benefit from what he called an ‘economy of scale,’ with more people using the same system.

“Once it’s up and going, there’s no mystery to how it runs,” he said. “The first step is the big one.”

The Anderson authority comprises 15 members, including the towns of Anderson, Belton-Honea Path, Clemson, Powdersville, Central, Pendleton, Central and Williamston, as well as Clemson University. Dyke Spencer, manager of the Powdersville Water District and Chairman of the Anderson authority’s commission, said the process wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

“We had some rubs,” Spencer said. “Nine years ago, when I got introduced to this, I thought it was never going to work. But it will work. It does work. We had a lot more difficulty making decisions a few years ago than we do now.”

Spencer said the members have, after some initial difficulties, adapted to the idea of regional benefit.

“We’ve come to grips with the fact that most of the water that comes through that pipe goes to Clemson and they’re going to get the lion’s share of the benefit out of it,” Spencer said, “but we’ve all learned that it’s our regional thing we’ve got to do. The next big line will go another direction.”

Several members of the Anderson system, including Powdersville, had to convert from non-profit organizations to special purpose districts in order to join the authority, a process that Mid-County Water is facing before joining a Fairfield authority. Herb Rentz, manager of Mid-County, asked Spencer how that process went.

“I think it was fairly seamless,” Spencer said. “I had more trouble trying to make sure my board understood we weren’t a non-profit anymore, because they were used to having an annual meeting and we were trying to get them used to having monthly meetings and operate more like a special purpose district.”

Hancock also pointed out that convincing customers to go along with the changeover was also a common hurdle to forming water authorities.

“Once they realize that the ownership of the assets was not going to change – let’s be honest, folks, the towns don’t own these assets. The customers are the system,” Hancock said. “So by moving custodianship away from a town council to a commission, those customers haven’t lost any rights to those assets.”

Water rates were foremost on the mind of Ridgeway Mayor Charlene Herring, and she asked the panel about their rate increases associated with forming their regional systems.

Hannah said the average increase was about $5 per month, with a five-year plan in place to bring all the various water rates to the same level. He also said that water rates in many towns were artificially low.

“I think there’s a strong connection to politics,” Hannah said, “where ‘I’m the mayor and I run the water system and I’m going to keep your rates low’.”

But the flip side to that, he said, was that municipal water systems don’t have the funds to maintain themselves and begin siphoning off the general fund. That, Hancock said, leads to an increase in taxes, fees and fines in order to prop these systems up.

“The days of the $12 water bill are over,” Hancock said. “That’s just not sustainable.”

The next steering committee meeting is May 1 at 4 p.m. at the Midlands Technical College QuickJobs Center, 1674 Highway 321 Bus. N., Winnsboro.