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A York County legislator foresaw this proposed water rate hike. Why he needs you now

As South Carolina braces for a wave of water from Hurricane Dorian, a York County legislator wants to protect his constituents from a tide of high water rates.

He needs help.

State Sen. Wes Climer hosts a forum Thursday night in Lake Wylie with utility regulators and consumer advocates. What Climer needs now is the public.

“I really want them to hear from the people in York County so they become more personally invested in this issue,” Climer said.

Blue Granite Water Co. sent a letter Aug. 30 to South Carolina Public Service Commission stating its intent to seek a rate adjustment within 30 days. The notification letter doesn’t state what the new rates would be.

It’s a move Climer, a critic of the utility serving Lake Wylie, foresaw. Climer and U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman had planned to meet this week with state health department officials to talk about utility oversight, specifically Blue Granite and the situation in Lake Wylie where water use restrictions began before Memorial Day and won’t end until at least next month.

Norman and Climer postponed that meeting because of Hurricane Dorian and its impact on the state.

While that meeting would focus on legislative options to protect customers, Climer sees a public forum fulfilling an equally important role.

“It is really important for these two agencies to hear from as many people as possible,” he said.

The state Office of Consumer Affairs and a state consumer advocate represent public interests in utility issues. The state Office of Regulatory Staff represents the public when utility regulation matters come up in courts, the legislature, before federal bodies and in front of the group that decides rate cases, the state Public Service Commission.

“They’re party to every case before the Public Service Commission and they investigate utilities, that sort of thing,” Climer said.

Climer first planned a public forum after Blue Granite withdrew its request for a water and sewer rate increase in July. The company had filed for it last fall, and a public hearing was scheduled for Lake Wylie in August. Lake Wylie residents have been vocal during at least a half dozen rate increase cases in the past decade. Residents and business owners testified in front of the public service commission claiming high rates, poor service and a lack of infrastructure improvements.

Climer and Norman have been vocal in their opposition to Blue Granite, formerly Carolina Water Service, too. Climer hoped to use the momentum of the canceled August hearing — almost 70 protest letters came in before Blue Granite dropped the request — to show state agencies the issue faced in York County.

“It is widely expected that Blue Granite will come back for another rate increase,” Climer said before the Aug. 30 letter confirming it. “We need to marshal our energy and resolve and get our strategy for when the case is filed.”

Company officials told Lake Wylie residents on at least one occasion that rate increases every couple of years are part of the business plan.

“That’s part of our model,” company spokesperson Robert Yanity told residents at a December 2017 public meeting at Camp Thunderbird, “to come in more regularly with relatively smaller increases, compared to coming in after maybe five years and doubling your rate.”

In the company’s request to drop the rate case this summer, attorneys noted another rate case asking for an increase would follow.

“The company believes that customers and judicial economy will be best served by these matters being considered as part of the company’s next general rate case,” wrote attorney Sam Wellborn.

Climer wants state agencies on Thursday to hear the same comments from customers the regulators would’ve heard in a rate case hearing. Climer also wants to form a game plan to oppose future increases.

“Certainly the abuses of Blue Granite require a constant, coordinated and consistent approach by everyone who’s affected,” Climer said.

Blue Granite serves about 5,600 residential water connections in York County, mostly in Lake Wylie. Blue Granite also has sewer customers. Blue Granite water is drawn from Lake Wylie by Rock Hill, which sells it to York County before arriving for company customers.

According to Blue Granite, investment of more than $640,000 occurred in the past year to maintain the Lake Wylie system and another $5 million will be spent in the next three years. The outdoor water use restrictions in place now are because of a 60% growth in demand since 2014.

In addition to engineering a large water tower, Blue Granite is working with the city of Charlotte on a backup connection to serve Lake Wylie. Construction on a pipe near Buster Boyd Bridge, which includes temporary road closures, began in mid-August. It will run through November.

Want to go?

A public forum with the South Carolina offices of Consumer Affairs and Regulatory Staff about water utility Blue Granite Co. is at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 at Clover/Lake Wylie YMCA, 5945 Charlotte Highway, Lake Wylie.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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