Towns to hire consultant to consider joint water authority

Published 10:23 pm Thursday, October 3, 2013

by Leah Justice

Columbus, Saluda and Tryon leaders say now is the time to consider the creation a joint water authority.

The towns met jointly on Tuesday, Oct. 1 and discussed joining together on several topics, but the focus of conversation quickly turned to a water authority.

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Although Columbus officials are still on the fence on whether or not joining a water authority is in their best interest, Columbus agreed to move forward with hiring a consultant to get more information.

Tryon Commissioner Roy Miller brought up a water authority, calling the topic the “big elephant in the room.” Miller said the towns have talked about a water authority for about six years and he thinks it’s the most important thing for Tryon. He said Tryon needs to look for ways to reduce costs and increase customers.

Miller said the county may not be interested in joining, but Polk County Commissioner Ted Owens, who attended the meeting, said he thinks the county is interested.

Miller said Tryon has the capability of producing much more water than the 400,000 gallons per day it is producing now and that Tryon could also handle Columbus’ sewer needs right now.

“That type of mutual agreement sends a message to citizens that we are willing to work together,” said Miller. “All these other things will come, but we have to come together on the water authority that we’ve talked about for years.”

Columbus Mayor Eric McIntyre said he understands water is a big issue for Tryon and Saluda, but right now Columbus is very self-sufficient. McIntyre reminded officials of when Jackson County officials, who helped form the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, spoke to Polk County’s towns. He said they had to put $200,000 up front to form the authority and are still putting up money every year.

“So, I need to see numbers,” McIntyre said. “I need to see numbers … showing me the citizens of Columbus are going to benefit from a water authority. It’s not broken. We are in a position… a lot different position than Tryon and Saluda. So, if you can put those numbers in front of me showing me the citizens of Columbus are going to benefit, I’ll be glad to look at it.”

Miller said the county, Columbus, Saluda and Tryon are now all connected with a waterline, meaning a lot of the infrastructure that would normally create up front costs is already in place. Miller said he thinks Columbus citizens would benefit because more customers would mean lower rates.

Miller also posed the question, “What if Columbus’ wells go dry?”

Tryon Commissioner George Baker said years ago Tryon was shipping water to Columbus.

Columbus Councilwoman Margaret Metcalf said she always hears Columbus’ wells aren’t going to last forever.

“Maybe they will, maybe they won’t,” Metcalf said, “but Columbus has always protected them and that’s why they last.”

Metcalf said Tryon’s water rates are pretty high and she needs to know more about where the water’s coming from and how Columbus is going to get it.

“We’ve got to be all together guys,” Baker said. “My concern is that everybody’s worried about whose going to control it. I don’t care who controls it. I’ll let the county control it.”

McIntyre said it’s not that Columbus doesn’t want to give up control… “show me the numbers,” he said.

Saluda Commissioner George Sweet said officials owe it to their citizens to get answers. He also said it’s not worthwhile to explore without the county involved.

“I am convinced that if we had a water authority tomorrow our citizens wouldn’t save any money,” Sweet said. “On the other hand, I’m also convinced that sometime down the road we’re going to have a water authority whether we want it or not. The state will come in and say whose going to be in it.”

Tryon Mayor Alan Peoples mentioned several times that the state is forcing water systems to join across the state and he fears that could happen in Polk County.

“I’m scared to death they are going to come in and force us to do something by their means,” Peoples said.

Saluda Commissioner Leon Morgan reminded the group that until 1972 Saluda had its own water plant and its own water reservoir. Then, he said, the state decided it didn’t like what the city was doing.

“We’ve been getting water from Hendersonville ever since,” Morgan said. “We need to think very seriously about the water situation in the future.”

Columbus continued to express their concerns over joining a water authority. Councilwoman Ernie Kan said Columbus has asked if rates would go down under a water authority. She said Columbus has been told that the rates would equal whoever’s rates are the highest.

“That’s not fair to our citizens,” said Kan. “I have a problem with a water authority that’s going to pull our citizens into a problem.”

Kan said Columbus residents couldn’t afford higher rates.

“I just want to know that this person you hire is going to look into all that and not try to make it sound soft,” Kan said. “If we’re going to hire somebody make sure they are going to tell us the whole truth.”

Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden said another difference between talks of a water authority in Polk County and the situation in Jackson County, is that Jackson County was forced into a water and sewer authority. Polk County would be doing it willingly, he said.

“A water authority is not going to exist in our tenure,” Baisden added. “We need to start it. We can’t do it without the county in my personal opinion.”

The towns all directed their managers to begin looking for a consultant to do a study on what a water authority would mean for the towns. The towns also asked Owens to speak with the county board of commissioners about whether or not the county is interested in joining the effort to hire a consultant.

The towns decided to wait until after the election to meet again. The next meeting will be scheduled for January.