Blythewood passes 1st reading on water agreement with Winnsboro

WINNSBORO – After 20 years, a new 20-year water agreement between Winnsboro and Blythewood is in the final stages. Blythewood town council passed the first of two readings on the agreement Tuesday evening, but not easily.

After expressing their dismay with Winnsboro water quality and customer service, Councilmen Sloan Griffin and Donald Brock suggested that the agreement, which must be signed by the end of July,  be renegotiated and undergo a major rewrite. They also didn’t like that the agreement had been negotiated by the previous council and mayor before they were elected last November.

Sloan Griffin said he conducted a poll concerning Winnsboro water customer satisfaction, and that 70 percent of respondents disapproved of Winnsboro water. He also called for competitive water contracts to be presented from both Columbia and Winnsboro before deciding on an agreement. He also suggested that only those council members who receive Winnsboro water should be allowed to vote on the contract. He then went further to call for a referendum by the residents to settle the matter instead of a vote by council.

After an hour’s discussion, Mayor Bryan Franklin, frustrated, had a few things to say.

“Unless your poll is scientific, we can’t rely on it,” Franklin said. “Someone could vote 4 or 5 times. And when someone says a council member can’t vote on this or that because they don’t live in a certain neighborhood, etc., that’s ludicrous.

“And we don’t have to call for a referendum for everything that comes before this body. If that were the case, you just need me, not the council members. I’ll lay out the agenda and let everyone in town vote on everything,” he said.

“I understand your frustration,” Franklin said, “but that’s not how government works.”

“And just because we elected two new council members doesn’t mean we throw out the votes and start over,” Franklin said.

“It’s almost impossible to redo the contract before July,” Franklin said.

The contract requires a two-year notice of termination.

Town Attorney Jim Meggs explained that, should the contract terminate, Winnsboro would not have to provide water to Blythewood and that there would be no other place to get water except Columbia, and he said they are not interested in supplying water to Blythewood.

First reading passed with a 4-1 vote with Sloan Griffin voting nay.

Town Administrator Brian Cook said there are not a lot of changes from the initial agreement signed between the two towns in July 2000.

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 hydrants it orders and developers to pay for hydrants they order. The new contract includes extensions provided in five-year increments.

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 in 2,000.

Until then, 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 with 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 in 2014, 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.

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

Blythewood town government abruptly gave Winnsboro a notice of termination [of the water agreement]. 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 resolution was a shock to Winnsboro council members who said it came with no warning.

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.