Council fields penny tax questions on virtual town hall webinar

WINNSBORO – An important local question is on the ballot this year in Fairfield County: a proposed penny sales tax, earmarked to fund a much-needed wastewater treatment plant.

If it’s not approved, county officials say, that will mean other, typically less popular, sources of revenue will have to be used to fund the plant – for example, a property tax increase, a sewer rate increase, and potentially cuts in services like public safety.

The county has purchased the land and is moving forward with the project. It’s up to the voters in Fairfield County to decide whether to impose the new sales tax or use one or more of the other funding sources instead.

County officials held an information meeting Tuesday evening to answer questions about the wastewater treatment plant project and the penny tax question on the Nov. 3 ballot. They answered questions from the public during the virtual town hall meeting, which was held via Zoom.

“The wastewater treatment plant is a need, not a want,” Fairfield County Economic Development Director Ty Daven port said, explaining that Fairfield County is nearly at capacity with its current wastewater treatment capabilities, making further development in the county a near impossibility without adding more capacity.

Part of understanding the current plan for adding sewer capacity means recognizing how much has changed since the failed nuclear plant project – once viewed as an economic savior for the revenue infusion it was expected to provide – fell apart.

In some ways, it means a different future than was anticipated five years ago, when the previous county council and administrator put together a 50-year plan.

“When you do things, you have to do them in the context of your times, and at that time I think they were confident that the nuclear plant would be built, and that they would have enough money to essentially put in the lines and hook to Richland County or Columbia,” Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor said in response to a question about the county’s departure from that plan.

“It was not going to be that we would have a [wastewater treatment] system here in Fairfield County,” he said.

But in the current reality, Taylor said, not only would the county lose autonomy by being dependent on Columbia’s wastewater systems, but the fees and costs involved would be too high. Without a new infusion of nuclear plant revenue to fund its infrastructure needs, the county has had to come up with a new plan.

Finding a good site for a wastewater treatment plant was a challenge, county officials have said. But after an extensive site search and negotiations with the landowner, Fairfield officials settled on the site that they just purchased, which is located on Cedar Creek near Interstate 77’s Exit 32.

It had to be located on a stream large enough to discharge the treated wastewater, and also close to industrial development areas.

Pumping it to the Broad River would cost more than double the current plan, Davenport said, in response to a viewer’s question about the options considered for the project. Also, neighboring Richland County took a position against Fairfield’s proposed plant.

“The reasoning they gave was that Richland County currently operates a wastewater treatment plant on the Broad River that has been allocated a certain amount of discharge. And I guess pollutants in the discharge… are at their max,” Davenport said.

“And if we’re allowed to discharge into the Broad River, then they’ll have to spend more money, basically, to reduce the amount of pollution that they’re putting into the Broad. So, it affects their budget.”

Bill Bingham, owner of American Consulting Engineers, the engineering firm hired by the county, talked through some of the details of Fairfield’s new plant.

“The current proposal, as it stands right now, is for a membrane bioreactor wastewater treatment facility. What this means is basically that it is a tertiary, which is the highest level of treatment we have in wastewater. It basically meets a Class I reliability standard, which means you have full redundancy so that if one component goes bad, there’s another component to take its place,” Bingham said.

“MBR technology is basically a very fine filter… This is a biological plant, which removes the waste using special bugs to eat the waste, but then you’ve got to filter those out, and the membranes provide the filter, and what results is a water that is near drinking water quality.”

He said the plant will also come with an odor control system so that it does not emit an odor to surrounding areas.

In response to a question about the potential for contamination of Cedar Creek, Bingham’s brother Bill, also with the company, made a familiar comparison: “Much like you have a nuclear plant here in Fairfield County and that nuclear plant has redundancy, that means there are multiple systems. If one fails… there’s backups to backups.”

In response to a question about current infrastructure, Taylor said the construction of this new plant will free up capacity in the existing system, allowing for expansion in the town of Winnsboro using current wastewater capacity – and touted the importance of local partnerships.

In addition to the town of Winnsboro, the county also has partnerships with the town of Blythewood, which is considering purchasing 60 acres of the site to build a sports complex on land adjacent to the sewer plant site, and the state, which has helped with the purchase of a mega-site for future industrial development and is helping with the sewer plant project as well.

County officials’ overall vision for the site goes beyond adding sewer capacity for current needs and is focused on the big-picture economic development of Fairfield County.

In addition to the mega-site, county officials also hope to see commercial and industrial development take off around Exit 32 with the addition of new wastewater capacity.

“We have ample natural gas, we have ample electricity, we have great highway access off of I-77, we’re close to an international airport and we’ve got a large labor pool to pull from,” Davenport said. “So, we are in a good – a great position, really. We just do not have the sewer capacity to maximize our potential.”

The county has done well with industrial announcements in recent months, Davenport said, and a big announcement was made this week Oldcastle APG is coming to Fairfield County and will make use of some of the remaining capacity.

“If we do not add capacity and we have one medium-sized industrial user come online, we will have no more capacity left and we will be in a moratorium situation, will be shut down as far as our recruitment of new industry, as well as our existing companies – they won’t be able to expand,” he said. “It is a critical situation, a critical need we have. We really do have to move forward.”

But his hope is that the project, which has a construction timeline of 24 to 30 months, will do more for Fairfield County than just meet immediate development needs; his hope is that it will facilitate the kind of development that reverses a 50-year trend of population loss by providing opportunity for the county’s young people.

“We purchased a 1,200-acre mega-site located on I-77,” Davenport said. “We need to allocate between 500,000 and a million gallons per day for that site so we can be successful in recruiting a larger employer. It will possibly be a large facility that is going to be kind of a game-changer for the county, and it’s critical that we keep moving forward.”

In the big picture, he said, while building wastewater infrastructure comes with a price tag now, the private industrial and commercial development that this investment makes possible will generate not only enough revenue to cover the cost of infrastructure, but to potentially reduce property taxes and increase services throughout the county.

The penny sales tax is a common means of funding capital projects in South Carolina and is used by 43 of the 46 counties in the state, including Richland, Davenport said. Some basic necessities, including food and medicine, are exempt from the tax.

“The good thing about the Penny sales tax is that it does not single out property owners, it is an alternative to property tax,” Taylor said. “It has the added benefit [that] non-residents – not just residents – and visitors would also pay.”

Also, the revenue from the tax is tied to a specific project – in this case a sewer plant and its associated infrastructure – and cannot be used for anything else. So, if voters decide to impose the tax Nov. 3, they will be designating the money for this project only.

Asked about the impact of the tax on the average person, Taylor summed it up this way: “Basically, if you spend $1,000, you’re going to spend $1,010. It’ll impact you $10. And again, it will impact those outside of the county who spend money here, and in that respect it’ll be transferred in.”