Mediation Deadline Passes

Winnsboro’s Grand Water Plan Fails to Move Blythewood’s Needle

BLYTHEWOOD – The Town of Winnsboro’s multimillion dollar plan, made public for the first time at Town Council’s Sept. 2 meeting, to draw as much as 10 million gallons of water a day from the Broad River does not appear to have swayed the Town of Blythewood from its efforts to terminate its water franchise agreement with Winnsboro and seek service instead from the City of Columbia.

“Reconsideration would be something that our Council might would entertain as an option, but (that’s) certainly not our position now,” Blythewood Mayor J. Michael Ross told The Voice in an email dated Sept. 9, a week after Winnsboro voted to launch the project. “Probably all of this will be discussed at work session on Sept. 25.”

Sept. 25, however, may prove too little too late for Blythewood. According to the water franchise agreement, contractual disputes are subject to arbitration. Winnsboro voted on July 17 to pursue arbitration and hired Robert Bachman to serve as the Town’s mediator. At press time, however, Blythewood was still bucking arbitration and had not hired a mediator to represent them in the dispute.

“We have not (hired an arbitrator) at this time,” Ross wrote on Sept. 9, “and I have sent a letter to (Winnsboro Mayor Roger) Gaddy to request if we could forgo the arbitration process. (It is a) tremendous unnecessary expense dictated by a 20 year old agreement.”

John Fantry, Winnsboro’s legal counsel for public utility matters, told The Voice Tuesday that Blythewood’s window to hire a mediator closed on Wednesday.

Last April, Blythewood abruptly and without warning passed a resolution to terminate the agreement that transferred annually approximately $13,000 from Winnsboro to Blythewood for use of Blythewood right-of-ways necessary for Winnsboro to access, service and maintain water infrastructure. While Blythewood reads the contract as effective until 2016, Winnsboro maintains that the agreement is binding until 2020. Severance of the agreement would, according to the contract, require Winnsboro to sell off that infrastructure at fair market value to Blythewood.

The City of Columbia has since entered the picture, expressing interest in acquiring Winnsboro’s infrastructure on Blythewood’s behalf. In an Aug. 5 letter to Winnsboro, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the Columbia was ready to begin negotiations pursuant to a sale.

But Winnsboro has remained steadfast in its resolve to pursue arbitration. In response to Benjamin’s letter, Gaddy wrote on Aug. 20 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.

“We are not interested in wasting public resources to pay lawyers to determine questions that are insignificant in the practical sense,” Ross wrote Gaddy on Sept. 4. “Whether the agreement expires in 2016 or 202 is really nor material to the public interest. What is important is that Winnsboro has been unable to provide potable water reliably and in sufficient quantities to our community.”

With no arbitrator sitting on the other side of the table, Winnsboro will now have to consider its next steps. Fantry said Winnsboro could take the matter before a Circuit Court judge and ask the court to enforce the contract. Winnsboro could also seek punitive damages, could elect to stop paying the annual $13,000 franchise fee or could even cut off water service to Blythewood Town Hall and the Doko Manor.

What is absolutely clear, Fantry said, is that Winnsboro has no interest in discussing the sale of its Blythewood infrastructure before the expiration of the contract. With the arbitration process derailed, when that contract expires may be up to the courts.

Winnsboro’s plan to draw from the Broad River may cost as much as $13 million and would require Winnsboro to lay approximately 9 miles of water lines between the river and the reservoir. Sources have indicated the first water may not flow through those lines until 2017. Should the Broad River plan deliver as promised, and if Blythewood were to have a change of heart, Ross wrote Gaddy on Sept. 4 that Blythewood would seek to have any potential future agreement reworked.

“The existing Franchise Agreement is flawed in a number of respects and in no event would we wish to renew on the same terms and conditions,” Ross wrote.