Saluda settles commissioner water issue

Published 11:27 pm Wednesday, November 13, 2013

by Leah Justice

The City of Saluda created a new policy regarding shared water meters after controversy stirred prior to the election over the city not charging a commissioner’s family for a separate meter.

Saluda City Council met Tuesday, Nov. 12 and decided to set a policy that decisions on separation of shared meters will come to the board and also decided to waive the fees to commissioner George Sweet’s family for a meter installed more than a year ago.

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The board unanimously approved the new policy to bring such decisions to the board but were split on the decision to waive the fee 2-1, with commissioners Lynn Cass and Johnnie Kinard voting to waive the fee and commissioner Leon Morgan voting against waiving the fee.

The board allowed Sweet to recuse himself from the vote.

Saluda made the decisions after being directed to do so by its auditors.

The auditor sent the city an email last month saying they would not release the audit report until a policy was created for future shared water meter separations and a decision was made on whether or not to waive the fee in Sweet’s situation.

Sweet explained how the situation came about.

In April 2012 during budget discussions, Sweet said the board was discussing how to get additional revenue for the water system.

One of the possibilities was requiring people who share meters to separate, he said. At the time there were two residential customers on the list who shared and all other shared meters were commercial customers along Main Street.

Sweet’s name was not on the list, but he spoke up and said he has four buildings on one meter. Sweet said he went to city administrator Erny Williams and said it was not right that all four buildings were on one meter and he’d like to have separate meters.

He also said he asked if it could be done without costing any money. Sweet owns three of the buildings, one is his main house and two are guest houses. His brother-in-law owns the other house, which is mainly used as a vacation home.

Sweet said all that had to be done was to put in one meter, that a tap was not required. When Williams looked at it, the waterline to Sweet’s brother-in-law’s house crossed Sweet’s property and the city has had problems in the past with those situations, so Williams decided to relocate it and put the meter and everything on the brother-in-law’s property.

Williams told Sweet since it was a relocation and not a new tap, they wouldn’t have to pay a tap fee, Sweet said.

Sweet said since that was done he’s been paying about twice the amount on his water bill since he and his brother-in-law are no longer splitting one bill.

Commissioner Cass said her problem with the situation is that Williams should have come to the board before making the decision not to charge a fee.

Williams said if Saluda asks other towns, they’ve done the same thing because the benefit was for the city. With each house now having its own meter, the city is getting two water bills, two sewer bills, two garbage fees and two user fees per month.

Williams said he took it upon himself because there is no policy and it increases money for the city to have separate meters.

Williams said in his opinion this person was getting water and was already a customer.

“It was a no brainer to me,” Williams said. “….We can’t address policy and procedure for everything we have to do out there.”

Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden said he was in the meeting when the discussion took place and he was also present when Sweet said he didn’t mind separating but he didn’t want to pay the full cost.

“We should allow everybody in town to do the same thing,” Baisden said.

He said to do the work it took four men three hours, using trucks, equipment and materials and there was never a fee, never a deposit paid.

“I don’t care how you cut it, that’s not right,” he said.

During the vote, Cass said she is conflicted on whether or not to waive the fee since the city did not have a policy in place at the time.

Kinard motioned to waive the fee, saying it’s retroactive.

Morgan said he has a problem with the whole thing. He said Sweet already had the meter, so it’s his brother-in-law who got the new meter.

“So do we bill him for a meter he didn’t ask for,” Morgan asked.

Baisden said every time the city has a new customer they pay a meter fee and a user fee. When a new customer taps onto Saluda’s system, the total fees are $2,225, including the tap, meter and deposit.

Another issue surfaced during the discussion when resident Ellen Rogers brought up a statement made during an election forum when commissioner candidate Karen Bultman stated that something was discovered in the audit report.

During the forum, Bultman didn’t give details on what the auditors discovered, but she said the auditor has discovered something that a commissioner is involved in and that the city administrator has gotten caught.

Rogers said she was curious how something that wasn’t public record landed in Bultman’s hands. Rogers specifically asked Mayor Baisden why city policy was violated.

Commissioner Kinard said only five people knew what was in the audit report.

Baisden said he did not give out that information and Bultman responded that she did not get her information from a commissioner or the mayor.