Winnsboro Rejects Columbia’s Waterworks Bid

No Sale on Blythewood Infrastructure

WINNSBORO – For all the challenges it has presented to the Town of Winnsboro in recent years – installing new pumps, making new connections, negotiating with the City of Columbia for water and then more water – the Blythewood tentacle of Winnsboro’s water company has become a hot commodity of late.

In mid-November, the City of Columbia made what was the second bid this year to purchase the Blythewood water system from Winnsboro, offering up a cool $1.4 million for the infrastructure and its customers. But last week, Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy rejected that offer in a letter to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin dated Dec. 4.

Gaddy made it perfectly clear after a Town Council meeting in early November that Winnsboro had absolutely no interest in selling off the Blythewood arm of the system, but that was before the $1.4 million offer hit the table. During Council’s Dec. 2 meeting, Council gave Gaddy the authority to discuss the offer with Benjamin. Even so, Gaddy said after the Dec. 2 meeting that there was not an overwhelming desire to sell a portion of the system that Winnsboro may be relying on to secure bonds for a project to expand the system as a whole. In his Dec. 4 letter to Benjamin, Gaddy reiterated that position.

“This portion of the Town of Winnsboro’s system is an integral component of the system and as such will play a significant role in the Town’s ability to obtain a favorable bond issue for the funding of the Broad River raw water line construction project,” Gaddy wrote. “Thank you for your interest, but at this time, it is not available for purchase.”

Winnsboro took its first steps toward drawing as much as 10 million gallons of water a day from the Broad River in September, when Council authorized Town Manager Don Wood to coordinate the project, while also giving the OK to enter into contracts with three separate entities to help begin piecing the project together. The project is estimated to cost between $12 million and $13 million, would require approximately 9 miles of water lines and may not be completed before 2017.

“It’s real easy for them to say they’re not interested and we play a significant role in them getting a favorable bond,” Blythewood Mayor J. Michael Ross told his Council members at a work session Tuesday. “But that’s five years down the road, even at the earliest. We’re talking about what affects us today.”

Last spring, Ni America, LLC, a private utility that also owns Palmetto Utilities in Elgin, waved an $800,000 check in front of Town Council. The overture was quickly brushed aside, but not before it set off a wave of panic within the Blythewood Town Council, prompting Blythewood to light a fuse that has yet to be stamped out.

Before the Ni America offer even became public, Blythewood Town Council executed a resolution to terminate its water franchise agreement with Winnsboro, setting off a controversy that, at press time, is yet unresolved. While Winnsboro maintains that the agreement, which sends approximately $13,000 in fees to Blythewood each year, is binding until 2020, Blythewood and Mayor Ross contend that it expires in 2016.

The resolution came as a shock to Winnsboro when it was passed, without a word of warning, last April. Ross told The Voice shortly afterwards that Blythewood had gotten wind of the Ni America offer and had “hit the panic button,” fearing that they could potentially be at the mercy of private industry and its water rates. Termination of the deal automatically triggers the sale of the system at fair market value, and it was at Blythewood’s behest that Columbia made their $1.4 million offer on Nov. 19.

But the contract also mandates arbitration in the event of a dispute between the two parties, and last summer Winnsboro hired a mediator to make their case. Blythewood, however, did not, and the deadline to do so passed in September.

“(Blythewood) doesn’t like this franchise agreement, we’re not happy with it either, let’s work together to work something out that would be mutually beneficial,” Gaddy said after the Dec. 2 meeting. “But no one has gone to them and sat down and said that.”

Ross has also cited Winnsboro’s perceived inability to provide water to economic development projects in Blythewood as another motive for attempting to bail out of the agreement. Last summer Ross told 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.

Gaddy, meanwhile, has stated repeatedly that the Broad River project will make all of those concerns disappear, rendering Blythewood’s move to wriggle out of the agreement nothing less than entirely ironic.

“We’ll just sit here and watch what happens with Columbia and Winnsboro,” Blythewood Town Councilman Bob Massa said at Tuesday’s work session, “but at some point in time, it’s affecting us economically. We’ve got to get out from under the auspices of Winnsboro.”