Tryon questions Ni America on potential water/sewer buy

Published 5:59 pm Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lease not out of question, company officials said
Tryon Town Council has more questions than answers at this point regarding an offer from a private company to purchase its water and sewer systems. Most of council’s questions are internal and have to do with the current and future needs of the town’s systems.
Council members are planning soon to ask the public what the town should do since it currently has a few options, including continuing to maintain the systems, joining with a county-wide system or selling its systems.
Tryon Town Council met with representatives of Ni America on Feb. 8 and council agreed to look into the possibility of selling or leasing the system, but council members said they first wanted to research the town’s systems.
Ni America offered the town about $4.1 million two years ago, which would have essentially covered the town’s debt, but officials said last week they are back to square one and would have to assess the systems in order to come up with another offer.
Ni America representatives Stan Jones, regional president; Rick Melcher, public relations, and Mike Ashfield, vice-president of acquisitions and operations, made a presentation to Tryon officials on Feb. 8. After that presentation, town council asked questions.
Councilman Doug Arbogast asked what happens with existing employees when Ni America takes over systems like Tryon’s.
Jones said employees are a very important part because they know the system.
“We try to get as many to stay as we can,” Jones said. “Their benefits are much better than mine.”
Arbogast also asked if Ni America has ever resold systems that it purchased. Melcher answered that it has not.
Councilman Roy Miller asked representatives if they would consider a lease for, say, 20 years.
Ashfield said that depends on what would work the best.
“We don’t have any arrangements like that ourselves but it would be something to consider,” Ashfield said.
Jones added, “It’s not a deal-killer for us.”
Councilman George Baker asked what the timeline would be to sell the system. Ni America answered it would take about 12 months to look into the system, make an offer and determine what the rates would be.
Baker said the reason he asked about a timeline is because, “There’s a big elephant sitting in this room that I haven’t heard anyone talk about. We are currently working to interconnect all three towns and the county’s water system, and some talk of sewer.”
Baker asked how that would impact Ni America’s negotiations, saying he’s concerned whether Ni America would go along with the joint agreements or work to overturn them.
Jones said if the town didn’t have agreements, Ni America would pursue agreements toward the same goal of regionalizing the system.
Miller said Tryon needs to get to know its own system prior to deciding whether to sell it or not.
“Let’s find out internally what’s going on before we even involve the public so we know the direction we need to go,” said Miller. “We know we have $685,000 worth of sewer line improvements [to do].”
Miller was speaking of a main sewer line that runs from East Howard Street to the sewer plant, which has given the town such problems that it has been fined by the state for overflows. The town has applied for a grant to help increase the size of the line, something Ni America officials said they wouldn’t do.
“If we were doing the East Howard line, I wouldn’t have made the line bigger,” Jones said, “I would have fixed the problem. You need to fix the problems where all the water’s coming in. We do that ourselves. We don’t sub out. We have equipment to do that type thing.
“We’re not in North Carolina; we would love to be in North Carolina; we would love to be your neighbor and your partner.”
Council asked public works director Joel Burrell how the town’s enterprise fund is currently running on budget. Burrell said the enterprise fund currently has 26 percent of its budget remaining and it should have 46 percent left. He estimated the town will face a 12-percent deficit this fiscal year in its water and sewer fund.
“I think we need to do our homework before we invite Ni America back to say this is what we want to do,” Miller said. “We need to get informed on our water system. We need to say to the public, this is the situation we are in. We are looking at this much rate increase over the next five years. Do we want to have increases or sell the system?”
Ni America gave Tryon rate comparisons from some of its sewer systems in South Carolina compared to public systems like Richland County, Columbia and Lexington County. Ni America owns Alpine, Woodland and Palmetto Utility, which have rates of $16.75, $24 and $33 per month rates respectively. Richland County, Columbia and Lexington County have sewer rates of $46.54, $61 and $58.53 per month respectively, according to Ni America’s information.
Tryon Town Council will likely discuss the possible acquisition during its regular meeting next Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Tryon Fire Department.

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