Winnsboro Mayor: Blythewood Waterworks Not for Sale

BLYTHEWOOD/WINNSBORO – The biggest news to emerge from Winnsboro Town Council’s brief, business-like meeting on Nov. 5 wasn’t the $26,500 Council OK’d for a new chipper truck for the Electric Department, or the Town’s recent evaluation that it had no fewer than 14 unsafe trees within town limits that required removal and 13 more that need trim work. The major revelation instead came after the meeting when Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy, while fielding questions regarding the state of negotiations with the Town of Blythewood over a disputed water franchise agreement, said with absolute finality that Winnsboro had no interest whatsoever in selling off its water infrastructure in and around Blythewood to the City of Columbia.

“And you can go ahead and print that if you want,” Gaddy told The Voice.

That the Capital City was interested in buying the miles of water infrastructure and the approximately 750 taps came to light last summer. In an Aug. 5 letter from Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to Mayor Gaddy and Council members, referencing a 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 the Town of Winnsboro said then that any discussions regarding such a sale were contingent upon the arbitration of the water franchise agreement between the towns of Winnsboro and Blythewood.

Last April, Blythewood 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.

In July, Winnsboro voted to hire Robert Bachman to arbitrate the dispute on their behalf. Blythewood, meanwhile, has avoided arbitration like the plague.

“We don’t like to go to arbitration,” Blythewood Mayor J. Michael Ross told The Voice last summer. “It costs us money.”

Indeed, Ross reiterated that sentiment in a letter to Gaddy in September, and Blythewood has not, to date, hired anyone to represent them in arbitration.

While both sides appeared to have come to a let bygones be bygones agreement last month, Gaddy said after last week’s Council meeting that the matter had not been formally reconciled. Both sides, meanwhile, agree that the existing franchise agreement may need some tweaking moving forward.

“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 in his September letter to Gaddy, and last week Gaddy agreed that some adjustments would be necessary.

The news that Winnsboro had no desire to sell off its Blythewood infrastructure regardless of the outcome of the franchise agreement dispute came as a surprise to Ross this week.

“Everything has a price,” Ross said. “It would be hard for me or any of my Council members to say that at no price would we sell something.”

In early September, Winnsboro unveiled plans to draw as much as 10 million gallons of water a day from the Broad River. The plan, which would cost as much as $13 million and would require Winnsboro to lay approximately 9 miles of lines from the river to the reservoir, and which would not be completed before 2017, would, Gaddy said, solve everyone’s problems. But to get it done, Winnsboro is going to have to issue a revenue bond. And to get the bond, Gaddy said last week, Winnsboro needs the customers – present and future – serviced by the Blythewood taps.

While Winnsboro has shared its plans with Ross and Blythewood Town Council, Ross said the entire issue was still up in the air.

“We understand perfectly that getting water from the Broad River will solve everyone’s problems,” Ross said, “but it would have been nice if they could have started on this two years ago.”

Ross said the time table on the project was a concern, and said there were a lot of variables that had to fall directly into place just to get the water flowing by 2017.

“There are a number of things that could put it off anywhere from 90 days to six months,” Ross said.

Meanwhile, Ross said, Blythewood was still holding out for an offer that could not be refused.

“The last talks we had – two, two and a half weeks ago – with Mayor Benjamin, everything was still open,” Ross said. “I believe Columbia is still going to make an offer and that’s what we’ve asked for. (Winnsboro) has asked us to keep an open mind, and I hope that they will, too.”

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