Wright to the point: Tryon faces unique water system challenges

Published 10:00 pm Friday, February 13, 2015

By Jim Wright, Mayor, Town of Tryon

First, I want to thank those of you who responded to the January article on civility. There were twice as many views on my Facebook page as there were voters in the last Tryon election! Quite a few people have mentioned the article as well. Thanks for the support.

Second, when the subject of water was discussed at our last town council meeting, we discussed distributing our strategy questionnaire in preparation for the 2015-2016 budget discussions. The council reviews the strategy on a five-year cycle (the current one is on our website) and it is time to update the strategic plan. I hope you saw the opportunity for input sent via the Nixle communication service. If you did not see it and want to participate in the survey send an email to me at the mayor’s email address, jimwright.tryonmayor@gmail.com.

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Finally, for this column I will expand my comments from the December article about water.

I need to say that, in my opinion, the issues about water facing Tryon are entirely different than those the county faces. It is possible that some solutions might overlap, however, the county is building a water supply and distribution system without a sewer system. Tryon on the other hand is maintaining water and sewer systems already in place.

There are four basic solutions to consider for Tryon’s water system. The basic solutions all have positives and negatives. I’m not going to try to list all of them here.

The first alternative is to sell our water system and keep the sewer system. For this alternative, the sale would be to a private company. This alternative usually gets shut down quickly as people are concerned about losing control of the system and what might happen to rates and water availability.

The second alternative is to continue our independence and maintain our current status as the owner and operator of both systems. The positive here is freedom but the negative is money. Frankly, we do not have the five to ten million dollars, and in all likelihood can’t finance that amount, needed to rebuild our infrastructure. Many of you know our water and sewer systems are “enterprise budgets,” separate from the town’s general operating budget. Our water filtration plant is fairly modern, but the debt service on the three million dollars outstanding from our last modernization is the single largest line item on that enterprise budget – approximately $300,000 per year.

The third alternative would be to affiliate in a contractual manner with another water district(s). We could ask the Spartanburg system, or Inman/Campobello system to “manage” our system. There would possibly be labor cost reductions or other cost savings related to such a change. The savings could be used to reduce outstanding debt, put in place an infrastructure rebuilding plan, redesign rates or a combination of the three. Along with selling the system, this alternative cedes our independence at least for the term of the contract.

Another alternative might be a combination of municipal and county water operations into a countywide water and sewer authority, with management of the authority separate from the towns and county. There could be an independent, elected or appointed board reflecting the interests of all parties to this authority. At this time, the debt in the Tryon system makes us an unlikely partner for Saluda and Columbus. After all, why should they help pay Tryon’s debt? Leaving the debt with Tryon while combining the systems means we would not have the revenue from the water system to retire the debt and that might require property tax increases in Tryon. Why would Tryon want that?

We currently have excess capacity in both water and sewage treatment. Those are good insurance policies in case of drought or a growth spurt in the town. It is difficult at this time to see how any of these alternatives would productively utilize that capacity.

My purpose in writing this column is to describe alternatives. I hope you have others alternatives for us to consider. I have tried to be objective in my choice of words. I do not know the perfect solution nor does our council.

There are positives to our current system that we need to keep in mind. We have a good supply of water. Our infrastructure, while old and fragile, is not breaking daily. We have a good group of employees who know how to maintain what we have. These positives allow us the time to consider alternatives and to select the best one under the circumstances.

We will schedule a public meeting to ask voters and users for their thoughts. We are also considering forming a citizen’s panel to study the alternatives. I hope you will consider participating in this effort.