Water supply a top issue for Saluda candidates at forum

Published 3:34 pm Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Candidates for next Tuesday&squo;s election in Saluda include:

Mayor: Fred Baisden, Rodney Gibson (incumbent) and John Morgan (current city councilman)

Saluda Board of Commissioners: William &dquo;Hop&dquo; Foster, Johnnie Kinard (incumbent) and George Sweet. Incumbent Laura Fields has dropped out of the election, although her name will remain on the ballot. If she wins, her seat will remain vacant until council fills it after the election.

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Saluda Senior Center&squo;s Henry Bright moderated the event.

Candidates responded to one question that was mailed to them in advance, which was what each candidate thinks are the city&squo;s most urgent needs.

All commissioner candidates and mayoral candidates Baisden and Morgan ranked water as the city&squo;s greatest need. Current Mayor Gibson spoke several times throughout the evening on the importance of water and his involvement in the city&squo;s water and wastewater systems since 1988, but he ranked managing the city&39;s future growth as the top issue, saying a mayor should look more toward broad and future issues.

Sweet said the cost of water in Saluda is &dquo;extraordinarily high,&dquo; and he thinks the steps the current council are taking are moving in the right direction. He said he&bsp; supports the city&39;s proposed purchase of the Tuxedo water system.

Kinard agreed that the city&squo;s current steps to purchase the Tuxedo system are moving in the right direction. He also said he believes cooperation with Henderson County is important, and that the city should look at other alternative water systems such as Lake Summit in the future.

Foster had a slightly different opinion than other candidates regarding the purchase of the Tuxedo system. He said Saluda first should fix its approximately 40 percent water loss before it spends more money. Foster said water is a top priority because the city&squo;s water bills really upset him, particularly because he knows people who pay their water bills and then can&squo;t afford their heat&bsp; and food.

Morgan said with Hendersonville being Saluda&squo;s sole water provider, there&squo;s no way Saluda can lower its rates. He said the city&squo;s pipes are in bad shape and the system&39;s average water loss is about 30 percent. Morgan said the city can&squo;t just go out and fix the leaks because the system has been there for 60 years without building its customer base, which means costs can&39;t be spread out to lower bills.

Baisden also agreed that water is the city&squo;s top issue and agreed the city needs its own water source. Baisden also said he wants to protect the residents from any increased water rates.

The rest of the forum&squo;s questions, selected randomly and presented anonymously, came straight from the audience.

One question asked how candidates can justify purchasing the Tuxedo water system when 45 out of every 100 gallons is lost. Foster reiterated that he thinks the city should fix that problem before spending money on purchasing another system.

Kinard said even a brand-new water system is going to average a 25 percent loss of water and that over the last 10 years Saluda has been fixing leaks because nothing was done to the system the previous 45 years. Kinard said if the city doesn&squo;t purchase the system nothing will change and costs can&squo;t be spread to maintain the city&squo;s current system.

Sweet said if Saluda purchases Tuxedo, it will reduce the cost of water itself and if it can reduce the cost of the water, then the city can start working on its system.

Gibson said when he first got involved with the city&squo;s system, the system was &uot;a disaster,&uot; with water loss between 70 and 80 percent. Gibson said buying the Tuxedo system will bring costs down and having more customers will bring costs down. He also said that he&squo;s been involved in conducting about 30 leak studies, which cost between $12,000 and $13,000 each and save about $4,000 in water per study.

Morgan said the best way to have less water loss is to buy a water sytem to have control over the costs and to be able to invest in the city&squo;s system.

Baisden said he doesn&squo;t disagree that the city needs to purchase its own system, but he&squo;s yet to hear how the city is going to get the water from Tuxedo to Saluda, because Hendersonville owns the line. Baisden said that all other candidates are correct; that the only way Saluda is going to lower its fixed costs is to add customers.

Another question asked whether the purchase of the Tuxedo water system would lower water rates. All candidates answered it will eventually, but not immediately. Foster also said Saluda needs a backup source and the Tuxedo move is a step in the right direction.

Candidates also agreed that as long as the city stays a customer of Hendersonville it will never have control over its costs nor have money to invest in its own system and repairs. Sweet added that purchasing the Tuxedo system is currently the only thing on the horizon to potentially reduce water rates.

Other questions included what each candidate&39;s vision is for Ozone Drive in the future, how ordinances should be enforced and what the city can do for affordable housing. All candidates had basically the same answers to those questions. They said they see small businesses on Ozone Drive, all ordinances should be enforced across the board or the city shouldn&squo;t have them on the books and Saluda should work with Polk County to provide affordable housing, which it currently is through the county&squo;s comprehensive land use plan process.