Winnsboro, Blythewood reach water agreement

WINNSBORO – After 20 years, a new water agreement is being finalized between the towns of Winnsboro and Blythewood.

The Winnsboro town council voted Tuesday evening to pass first reading on a new water service agreement with Blythewood. The second and final vote and public hearing on the agreement will be held at the Feb. 18 meeting.

Blythewood council will take the first of its two votes on the agreement Feb. 24. 

The initial agreement between the two towns, finalized July 31, 2000, was set to expire July 31, 2020. The continuation of the agreement is an affirmation of a longstanding relationship between the two towns. It was primarily Winnsboro’s water that jumpstarted economic development in Blythewood.

Until 2000, Blythewood had no public water service. It was that year that the Ballow administration sought to bring economic development to Blythewood with a hotel – the Comfort Inn. To do that, the town needed water. Lots of water. Ballew turned to Columbia but was unable to negotiate an agreement for the city to supply water to Blythewood.

Winnsboro was the only water supplier at the time who would agree to extend service to Blythewood. With cooperation from Fairfield Electric Cooperative in building a water tower, Winnsboro water made possible the eventual construction of three hotels that currently contribute between $400,000 and $500,000 in hospitality tax revenue annually to the town’s coffers.

But during 2014, the Blythewood town government soured on Winnsboro water and abruptly gave Winnsboro notice of termination [of the water agreement].

 “Something different is going to have to be developed between now and July of 2020. A new plan for how we relate to Winnsboro or Columbia with regard to potable water supply and storage  is important and emerging – like tomorrow. It’s an issue for the town and council, Blythewood town attorney Jim Meggs said.

Then-Mayor J. Michael Ross said at a town council retreat that he recommended, “that our next agreement [with Winnsboro] not last for 20 years.”

Blythewood council signed that notice of termination in April of 2014, effective July of 2016, but the termination never came to fruition since the agreement didn’t actually end until 2020.

The issue in 2014 was two-fold. A severe state-wide drought two years earlier had drained Winnsboro’s reservoirs until there was not enough water to meet Blythewood’s needs. As a result, Winnsboro Town Manager Don Wood signed an agreement with the City of Columbia to temporarily supplement the Blythewood area’s water supply.

In addition, Ross said at that time that Blythewood had gotten wind that a private company had offered to purchase the Blythewood arm of the water system from Winnsboro. Winnsboro council members said they never entertained such an offer.

The resolution was a shock to Winnsboro council members who said it came with no warning.

Ross told The Voice shortly afterwards that council feared that they could potentially be at the mercy of private industry and its water rates.

Termination of the agreement, however, automatically triggers the sale of the system at fair market value, and it was at Blythewood’s behest that Columbia made a $1.4 million offer on Nov. 19, 2014 to purchase Blythewood’s system from Winnsboro.

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

Winnsboro, meanwhile, initiated steps in September, 2014 to construct a $12 million pipeline that would allow the town to draw as much as 10 million gallons of water per day from the Broad River.  Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy said the Broad River project would make all of Blythewood’s concerns disappear, rendering Blythewood’s move to wriggle out of the agreement moot.

“Those pumps are now permitted to provide 10 million gallons per day,” Gas, Water and Sewer Director Trip Peake said. Much of that water is earmarked for Fairfield county’s future industrial development.

“Right now reservoirs are full and over flowing. And if the reservoirs drop in the summer, if there’s no rain, we will still have plenty of water” Peake said.

In the end, there were few changes to the new contract provided by Winnsboro last month, Blythewood Mayor Bryan Franklin gave the document his blessing.

“I am confident it will be adopted [by council] on my recommendation,” Franklin wrote to Winnsboro Town Manager Don Wood on Jan. 3.

The new water contract, agreed to by both Winnsboro and Blythewood, is again a 20-year contract with extensions provided in five year increments.

The main changes to the agreement are that Winnsboro will pay a higher franchise fee to Blythewood (up from three percent to five percent), Blythewood (in-town and out-of-town) will receive more favorable rates that are in line with Winnsboro’s in-town and out-of town rates, and if the franchise is ended, the Town of Winnsboro is to be paid fair market value. Other features of the contract call for Blythewood to pay for water hydrants that it orders, Winnsboro to pay for hyrants it orders and developers to pay for hydrants they order.