Blythewood Courts Capital City

Mayor, Council Seek Columbia Water Service

BLYTHEWOOD – As the dispute over the water franchise agreement between the towns of Blythewood and Winnsboro lingers unresolved, letters obtained by The Voice last week indicate a courtship of the City of Columbia for future water service is already under way.

In a letter dated July 22 and addressed to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Columbia City Council, Blythewood Mayor J. Michael Ross wrote, “Town Council has concluded that our citizens will be best served by Columbia, and we respectfully request your assistance in making a transition from Winnsboro to your system as soon as possible.”

In an Aug. 5 letter from Benjamin to Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy and Council members, referencing a recent meeting between Winnsboro and Columbia, Benjamin said Columbia was ready to begin discussions concerning the acquisition of the Blythewood water infrastructure, as well as the water customers who come along with it.

But any discussions regarding the sale of Winnsboro’s plumbing underneath the streets of Blythewood may be premature.

“Mayor Gaddy has notified the principals that any decision with regard to the Blythewood portion of the Town of Winnsboro’s water system,” Winnsboro Town manager Don Wood wrote in an email to The Voice Monday, “is contingent upon arbitration of the water franchise agreement.”

Gaddy indeed responded to Benjamin’s letter on Aug. 20, writing that Winnsboro considers any discussion regarding the sale of the Blythewood system “premature in that Winnsboro is demanding arbitration,” over the disputed termination of the franchise agreement.

Gaddy also wrote that Winnsboro is currently “pursuing actions to obtain a sustainable source of water” that should “alleviate any water capacity issues within the Richland County and Town of Blythewood portions of the Town of Winnsboro Water System.”

In a move last April that took the Town of Winnsboro completely off guard, Blythewood Town Council passed a resolution to terminate the franchise agreement that transfers approximately $13,000 from Winnsboro to Blythewood annually and gives Winnsboro access to Blythewood right-of-ways necessary to service and maintain water infrastructure within the Blythewood town limits. Severance of the agreement would, according to the contract, require Winnsboro to sell off that infrastructure at fair market value to Blythewood. John Fantry, Winnsboro’s attorney for utility matters, said after a Winnsboro Town Council meeting last month that another entity, such as the City of Columbia, could purchase and operate the system on Blythewood’s behalf.

After the resolution passed, Ross told The Voice that Blythewood had “hit the panic button” after learning that Winnsboro was negotiating the sale of the Blythewood infrastructure to Ni America, LLC, a private firm that owns Palmetto Utilities in Elgin. A source close to that situation told The Voice last April that Ni America had made an $800,000 offer to Winnsboro, but Gaddy and Councilman Stan Klaus said Winnsboro was not, in fact, in negotiations for a sale.

The termination resolution triggered a disagreement between the two municipalities over when such a termination may legally be made. Blythewood contends the contract runs out in 2016, and Ross told The Voice Monday that Council was, by passing the resolution in April, paving the way for a transfer of the water system.

“It was the time to start that process,” Ross said, “eighteen months ahead of (when the contract runs out). And I think Winnsboro wants to get out of it as much as we want Columbia to come in.”

Winnsboro, meanwhile, contends that the franchise agreement is binding until the year 2020, and copies of the contract provided to The Voice by Winnsboro support that claim. With the termination in dispute, Winnsboro Town Council voted at a July 17 special meeting to hire Robert Bachman as their representative in arbitration. According to the agreement, contractual disputes are subject to arbitration under S.C. law. As of press time, however, Blythewood had not hired an arbitrator to represent its side in the disagreement. At their meeting Tuesday night, Winnsboro’s Town Council flatly denied that they wanted out of the agreement.

“We don’t like to go to arbitration,” Ross said. “It costs us money.”

Winnsboro appears bent on arbitration, however, and Fantry told The Voice Tuesday night that he had notified Ross late last week that Winnsboro had retained an arbitrator. Blythewood now has 30 days, Fantry said, in which to secure its own.

In Ross’s July 22 letter to Columbia, Ross said Winnsboro’s ability to deliver sufficient quantities of water had become “compromised” in recent years, putting on hold “a number of economic development projects” because of Winnsboro’s “inability to add taps.” Monday, Ross expanded on that, telling The Voice that the Doko Village development, as well as Red Gate on Muller and Blythewood roads, were both turned down for water by Winnsboro.

Winnsboro is currently buying wholesale water from Columbia and piping it through their meters and selling it to Blythewood customers. Winnsboro’s agreement with Columbia provides up to 1 million gallons a day, but Ross said Winnsboro is only using about a quarter of that capacity at present.

Water rates have increased somewhat this year, in part to help Winnsboro acquire the additional capacity from Columbia. Ross said he didn’t expect the rates to change dramatically with Columbia taking complete control, although a marginal increase would be worth the security of knowing water was available.

“Our concern is more about having the water and setting the future for Blythewood and not having a concern of not being able to get water,” Ross said. “If that’s $1 more a month on my water bill, that’s worth it.”

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