WINNSBORO — What water system would be owned by a regional water authority for Fairfield County and portions of Blythewood?
That question raised by attorney Margaret Pope was at the heart of Wednesday’s water authority steering committee meeting when representatives from Blythewood, Mid-County, Ridgeway, Winnsboro and Fairfield County Council met to continue discussions and to seek legal advice about forming a regional water authority.
Would a regional water authority only own the water source, while giving autonomy to area water companies? Would an authority seek to own the entire infrastructure used to manage water for the region?
Pope outlined scenarios in other counties, such as Hampton and Anderson counties, to give the members a feel for the range of options they could consider.
Pope recommended that early in the process the authority center on determining if a general manager would be needed and how much administration would be required for a regional water authority.
“You have systems each of you own to varying degrees (currently),” she said.
The county paid for the Army Corps of Engineers to become involved in a water study and the town of Winnsboro helped facilitate the process.
“Our goal is to try and meet everybody’s (water) needs,” said Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy, who is also chairman of the steering committee. “We need a system and need to all work together.”
When future costs of water production and management are considered, Gaddy said water becomes an entity that the town no longer will be able to afford to provide by itself.
He noted the $8-12 million needed for pipe to run water from Lake Monticello to the town, provided that option comes to pass, as evidence that cooperation and collaboration for economy of scale are what is needed to benefit the entire county and also neighboring Blythewood.
An authority also would have more clout when trying to procure loans and get grant funding.
“We need a reliable source of water if the area is to grow, so everything is on the table from (the town’s) standpoint,” he said.
Though sequestration concerns seemed to slow the Corps efforts this fall, Gaddy said that now the Army Corps of Engineers will be able to do smaller projects like the one in Fairfield County, as larger projects will be put on hold. Possible furlough of federal workers could slow the project an estimated 20 days. By June there should be a report from the Corps to help with decision points that face the community. Fairfield County Administrator Phil Hinely expects that a final report from the Corps would arrive a few months later.
“This is a learning process for all of us,” Gaddy said, “and it may be the devil is in the details.”
The committee decided to contact Santee Cooper and arrange to have presentations at the next meeting so the representatives on the steering committee could become better informed from engineers about the feasibility and viability of certain scenarios.
In addition to naming this group as a steering committee, the members explored options for the creation of bylaws for a future authority. The way votes will be counted is another area yet to be determined, but Pope recommended figuring that out before the committee moves on to bylaws.
It was determined that a majority of the members would constitute a quorum. Whether voting representation would occur pro rata (meaning by ratio of members in each water company) has yet to be determined.
A two-thirds vote of the regional water authority would be required to take on debt in a scenario Pope shared with the committee, but that has not been finalized. If pledge revenues were paid by customers then a vote of that area town council would be needed in addition to the 2/3 vote before spending could occur.
“If the authority receives funding from an entity to pay for the project and the entity is opposed to the project, you cannot move forward (under this proposed arrangement),” Pope said.
This possible arrangement allows the destiny of each group to be in its own hands. She said that hard decisions will lie ahead for upgrading pipes and plants but those will wait for a future time, if and when, an authority is formed. A majority vote would be needed for rate changes and fee increases.
A water agency could own just the water source and the pipe to distribute the water or it could own more of the infrastructure. Gaddy said it seemed to him that general consensus was to let the Winnsboro remain as a water provider but if the authority wanted to own the water plant, the town could work on that arrangement. He noted right now that the town only brings in a one percent profit margin on water.
Gaddy was elected chair of the steering committee with Gregory Sprouse with the Central Midlands Council on Government serving as secretary. Sprouse offered for his organization to hold the $25,000 of fees collected from the five participants in a COG account. That motion by County Council Chairman David Ferguson passed unanimously.
In addition to considering funding options, efforts were made to clarify the role of the committee.
Pope acknowledged that so far as she understood it, each company wanted to remain in control of its own destiny.
One member, attorney Ray Jones, said there likely would be rate increases at some point. The question would be how much and when. Rate changes would depend upon what kind of things an authority wanted to own.
Herb Rentz with Mid-County Water said, “what we want to do is keep rates as low as we can and still have a good supply of water.”
What does the group need to do so that the authority can benefit from economy of scale? Meaning, which parts of the collective cooperation can actually produce cost savings by fewer duplicated personnel and/or processes?
Ferguson said the county’s main interest is in having access to water when it is needed to promote business expansion.
“We must be proactive in the future (with regard to water and sewer),” he said, “or we should not have purchased the (industrial park) property on Peach Road.”
The municipalities currently determine where water lines are run. The authority needs to determine if it will be a retail provider to the industrial par as well as it moves forward in Pope’s opinion.
When industry comes, water needs to be available within 90 days, at whichever site or industrial park in the county the business wishes to locate.
Ferguson said that at some point it might make sense for the county to get involved as a supplier of bulk water, another of the many issues a regional water authority could help hammer out in the coming months and years.
“The cheapest route to water may be not dragging lines in major places but instead trying to link up with folks who already have water (access),” Ferguson said.
In other news, County Administrator Phil Hinely said the City of Columbia has agreed in principle to sell water at a wholesale rate to the Town of Winnsboro, but the contract still needed approval. When that issues is settled the county would be able to step in an install the pumps required to get that water from Columbia to Fairfield County.