Taylor and his team going after town’s potential

Winnsboro Town Manager Jason Taylor, center, Director of Streets & Sanitation Calvin Johnson, left, and Assistant Town Manager for Development Chris Clauson are shown here at the Winnsboro Water Treatment Plant. | Barbara Ball

WINNSBORO – The Town of Winnsboro has made progress on several projects and initiatives this past year that will enable the town to provide more efficient utility services, reduce blight and develop more downtown businesses, says Town Manager Jason Taylor.

“I think we have great potential if we do what it takes to realize that potential,” says Taylor, who took the reins as Town Manager in mid-2021, one of several new officials who joined the Town staff after a wave of retirements.  “That means strategically investing in our utilities and strategically investing in our community so that we can attract more business and development.”

Fresh Faces on the Town Staff

Taylor says the first order of business when he joined the Town was to help find replacements for the other retiring officials, which included a clerk and a planning director, along with water and sewer plant operators.  He also did a little restructuring to create two Assistant Town Manager positions, one focused on finance and billing and one focused on business development, reflecting a priority that Taylor says will be important as Winnsboro seeks to grow.

New Utility Meters

The next big item on the agenda was the implementation of a utility meter system overhaul that had already been approved by the outgoing mayor and council.  The $3.5 million project will install new digital meters that can be read remotely for the Town’s water, electric and gas utilities. Taylor says the project will solve the challenges of manual meter reading to enable the Town to deliver more accurate and timely bills to customers.

“The Town was having issues with billing, staffing shortages, and old inaccurate meters, all leading to a system that was ineffective and inefficient.  So, council decided to fund and push the project forward.

The first phase of the project included meters being placed in the Blythewood area. This phase is nearing a successful completion, and we will then move on to installing the new meters in Winnsboro and throughout the rest of our system” Taylor says.  “That should prove to be a huge improvement for our customers by providing them with the ability to manage and monitor their own utility usage and the Town being able to bill more accurately and timely.”

Ferguson Waterworks representative Rob Watson, left. explains to Winnsboro Mayor John McMeekin at a town council meeting how the data from new smart meters, which Watson is holding, is transmitted every hour via a transmitter (held by McMeekin), to an antenna on a water tower and then to the town’s billing office. | Barbara Ball

Water and Sewer Plant Improvements

Taylor says the new Water Plant Director, Jeff Cisney, has been given the important task of ramping up operations to 24 hours a day, a change that is expected to both increase the quality of the water produced along with creating additional supply. 

With 24-hour operation, the plant will be able to produce enough additional water to replace what the town is currently buying from the City of Columbia for $120,000 a month, ultimately realizing a net savings of between $80,000 to $100,000 monthly. Cisney says he now has plans in place to begin 24 hour operations by Jan. 21, giving the Town revenue for replacement of ageing lines throughout the system.

The new Sewer Plant Director Russell Wright, is moving forward with generator upgrades to bring the plant into compliance with standards as required by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

“One of the critical things we’re doing right now is stabilizing the utilities” Taylor says. “This has to be accomplished before we can get to those things that are near and dear to my heart, like downtown revitalization and community redevelopment.”

Utility Master Planning

Taylor says the Town, which sells water well beyond its boundaries, is one of only six municipalities in the state that provides electric, gas, water and sewer service.  The Town is also looking to map its system, putting a comprehensive plan in place to aggressively market and expand it’s utilities to attract new growth.

“We’re working together with other utility providers and Fairfield County to explore how we can best expand utilities throughout the county. We are looking to open up the potential for new growth in our service territory based on how we can expand utilities,” says Taylor, who served as Fairfield County Administrator before he joined the Town.  “Right now, we’re focusing on strategically investing in utility expansion in order to promote commercial, industrial and residential development.”

Taylor has begun efforts to engage the directors of the Town’s water, sewer, electric and gas utilities in order to work together more closely and collaborate in the operation and planning of their departments for the benefit of the Town’s utility customers.

Annexation

The Town is on track to increase its total area by upward of 20 percent in the next couple of months, according to Assistant Town Manager Chris Clauson.  Policy changes have made it easier for landowners adjoining the Town to request annexation.  The draw for annexation is trash service and the reduced utility rates.

From the Town’s perspective, the more efficient delivery of services such as trash pick-up and public safety are a benefit.

“We are looking to fill in a lot of the gaps in the Town boundaries, which are very erratic,” Clauson says. “Driving down a street you can be in Town or out of Town multiple times, which is just not efficient for delivery of the services that the Town provides, especially public safety and sanitation collection.”

The overwhelmingly positive response in annexation requests, he says, will mean more access to services and more efficient delivery of services, which will benefit the Town and its residents.

A storefront on S. Congress Street in Winnsboro. | Barbara Ball

Cleaning up the Town

As the Town works on improving its properties and services, Taylor says Winnsboro has also stepped up its code enforcement with an eye to cleaning up blight and developing public-private partnerships that improve the appearance of the community. 

For example, the owner of the burned house on Congress Street has finalized a donation of the property to the Town, which will raze the destroyed structure in the next few weeks, resulting in a lot that will serve as green space or, potentially, the site of a future business.

“We are looking to develop innovative public/private partnerships to improve the appearance of the Town, thereby taking unproductive properties and making them productive once again.”  Talks are underway with a landowner in the Zion Hill neighborhood to also donate a property. One property, in particular, sits next to an existing Town Park. This will allow for the removal of a dilapidated structure, and then expansion of a park that adjoins it” he says. “We’ll be getting rid of an unsafe eyesore and combining the previously derelict property with a park to double the size of the park.”

He stresses that the code enforcement effort needs to be more than just a punitive action directed against the owners of neglected properties.  Instead, this should also be an effort to seek to work with owners to get their properties up to code and beautify the town.

“I think we have to get actively involved in code enforcement. It’s one of those things, if people don’t comply, sometimes tickets have to be written,” he says, “but I think we have to get creative in how we work with property owners to improve things such as with a public-private partnership.”

Creating a Community Center

Meanwhile, Taylor says, the Town government is also working to improve its own properties for the same reason.  One community building that has long been in disrepair is the Old Armory, which was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal jobs program that constructed public works projects around the United States during the Great Depression. 

“We have started the process of restoring the Old Armory located in Fortune Springs Park.  We now have bids in to install a new floor, which we will be taking to council shortly, and repairs to the wiring, ceiling and lighting are also being planned,” Taylor said. “This is a significant building, and with a little work. it can serve our citizens for many years to come,” he said.

“There are a lot of communities that have almost identical armories that were built during that period, and many communities have renovated these buildings, turning them into vibrant community centers.  This is what we want to achieve with Winnsboro’s Old Armory.”

Taylor looks to restore the Old Armory to a vibrant community building. | Contributed

Planning Downtown Revitalization

The Town has also begun planning the early steps needed to start the process of bringing businesses back to downtown. The revitalization of downtown includes bringing new restaurants, stores and services back to Congress Street so that our citizens have places to shop, eat and do business, as opposed to having to drive out of town. 

This is at the core of what Taylor wants to achieve as Town Manager.  He says the Town recently passed an ordinance to update and bring its business license rules into compliance with state law, and he and Town staff are actively talking to both land owners and prospective businesses to see what can be done to encourage new retail in the Town.

“We need to get active businesses in our vacant buildings, so we’re working on developing a program where we can potentially offer incentives to businesses to open here,” Taylor says.

“It’s not just a romantic or a nostalgic vision of trying to get downtown back to what it used to be, which is a great thing too, but it’s a business proposition. When you have a lot of empty buildings in Town, they’re not productive,” Taylor says. “These vacant building are not paying for water, gas or electric, so I think we can use our revenues from our utilities to promote growth that will produce a financial return back to our utilities. Iin order for our Town to grow, we must find ways to be business friendly, actively promote and do the things that will make us an attractive place for businesses to come and be able to be successful.”

Looking Ahead to 2022

As the new year begins, Taylor says Winnsboro is poised to make some great improvements in the coming year, and he also plans to continue working with the county and other local governments for our mutual benefit.

“I still want to work very closely with the county to do everything we can to promote industrial development, but I also want to concentrate on retail and residential development.  Manufacturing and Industrial are essential, but we also want to capture some of those dollars from the paychecks generated from our new industries by giving people a place to shop and live in Fairfield County.”

Taylor says the investments being made now in the Town’s utilities will not only improve the services provided to the Town’s customers, but will also help to generate revenue in order to do many other projects the Town has planned. 

“Hopefully, in the long term, this will provide lower rates to our utility customers as well,” he says.

“If you operate more efficiently and have a larger customer base to spread the cost across, there will eventually be a savings that could be used to potentially lower or keep rates from rising for our citizens,” he says, “which again makes us more competitive in luring new industry.”

“It will take time with many people working together. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be the work of one person, but we’re trying to get everything moving in the right direction, including expansion, efficiencies and improved service,” he says. 

Ultimately, Taylor says, local government is in the business of improving the quality of life for its people, and this is what he and his team are aiming to do for the citizens they serve.

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