unty goes on its own for water

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Polk County will have to secure the Green River as a long-term public water source on its own.

After years of talking about working together on water, Polk gave Columbus, Saluda and Tryon another chance Monday to join in a Green River Water Authority.

All of the elected officials for the county and towns sat face to face for nearly three hours in the Polk County Middle School auditorium, but did not get any closer to an agreement.

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The towns said they were unable to commit to the project based on terms laid out by the county. County officials said they are sure the terms could be worked out but they need to know now whether the towns want to be part of the authority.

The county said it has reached a point in its effort to have the state reclassify the Green River for public water use that whichever parties are involved will have to start &dquo;signing papers.&dquo;

The county is working with the state to reclassify the river for a water intake and plans to meet with the Local Government Commission (LGC) next month to discuss financing for the project. County officials repeatedly emphasized that they need to move forward urgently with the process or other water suppliers in the region may seek an intake on the Green River ahead of them.

&dquo;I think we have forgotten one im-portant fact,&dquo; said commissioner Ted Owens. &dquo;Other entities would like to have our water supply. If we pass this up, somebody else will get it.&dquo;

The county had hoped to gain some commitments from the towns to purchase water produced by the authority. Sales of that water would have helped pay operating costs for the new system.

&dquo;An intake plant is a very expensive proposition,&dquo; said county manager Ryan Whitson. &dquo;We can&squo;t go to LGC and be approved for borrowing $15 to $20 million without answering how it&squo;s going to be paid back.&dquo;

Without a commitment from the towns, the county says it will have to find other ways to get the revenue needed to pay for the system. County officials said they remain open to selling water to the towns and can negotiate terms for that purpose. But the county made it clear that the towns&squo; chance to be joint owners and decision-makers in the authority passed last night.

&dquo;We really want you to join, but if you don&squo;t we&squo;re not going to stop,&dquo; said Polk County commissioner Tom Pack.

The county says it will pick up some new customers in unincorporated areas of the county on lines run from the new treatment plant once it is built. The county also says it will consider selling to customers outside the county. Whitson says at least one entity has expressed interest in purchasing water that would come from the Green River.

&dquo;I think we can make it work (even without the towns),&dquo; said Whitson. &dquo;But it&squo;s going to be difficult. It could have worked a lot better with the towns.&dquo;

Whitson says the county wasn&squo;t looking for a major financial commitment from the towns. He says he asked that the towns agree to purchase as little as 10 percent of their water from the authority. Beyond generating some revenue to cover operating costs, the main reason for that requirement, he says, was to keep water flowing through the lines so it doesn&squo;t become contaminated.

But town officials said they were not able at this time to make the commitment needed by the county. While town officials supported the county&squo;s efforts to reclassify the Green River and protect it as a future water source, they said it was hard to make any financial commitment when

they don&squo;t know exactly what the cost will be. They noted that the water authority doesn&squo;t have a set water rate yet, and the county doesn&squo;t know exactly how much it will need from the towns to cover operating costs.

Columbus Manager Tim Hollo-man noted that both Columbus and Tryon have significant costs associated with their existing systems, and purchasing water from the Green River authority would be an added burden for town water customers. Columbus Town Council passed a resolution Monday saying it supports the water authority plan, but only if it does not result in additional taxes (see resolution page 12).

&dquo;I think there is a long-term need for (the water authority), but not a short-term need,&dquo; said Holloman. &dquo;Is this an insurance policy (for future water supply) that we can afford? We have to keep ratepayers in mind. If we&squo;re talking seven years down the road then maybe we could do it, but not right away.&dquo;

Saluda commissioners also approved a resolution stating interest in the water authority concept but concerns about details in the plan (see resolution page 10). Saluda commissioners said they may be interested in buying water from the authority, but raised concerns about an unknown financial commitment to be partners in the authority.

&dquo;I don&squo;t question the intention or the need (for the water authority) but I do question if it&squo;s feasible,&dquo; said Saluda commissioner Laura Fields. &dquo;We need a healthy supply of water but if it&squo;s going to crunch us down with bills already looming over us, I&squo;m just wondering &squo;are we overstepping?&squo;&dquo;

The county said it can&squo;t know the exact figures the towns are looking for at this point since they will have to be decided by the authority, not the county. County officials reminded the towns that they would appoint a majority of water authority board members, so they could make those decisions.

&dquo;I think everybody wants to be a player, but they want the county to take the risk,&dquo; said county manager Whitson. &dquo;I&squo;m seeing it really clear that the county needs to move forward with this and the towns need to wish us luck.&dquo;

Some town officials accused the county of being too arrogant and controlling in negotiations for the authority. Saluda Mayor Rodney Gibson said Whitson threw &dquo;grease on the fire&dquo; when he suggested that the most cost-effective plan was for all the local governments to consolidate their water systems under the water authority. He called that a &dquo;serious mistake early on&dquo; in the negotiations with the towns.

Whitson said that was his initial suggestion, but the county also later dropped that idea and agreed that the towns could keep their systems and only commit to buy some water from the new treatment plant.