A decision on keeping or moving on from Carolina Water Service might not be made for another six months. Again.
Unanimously and without conversation at its June 19 meeting, York County Council approved a six-month extension on its water service contract for the Lake Wylie area. Just as council members did almost a year ago.
“Still negotiating with them,” said Councilwoman Allison Love, who represents the Lake Wylie area. “Just wanted to be sure we are covered as far as time.”
Last August, the county and Carolina Water signed a six-month extension on their franchise agreement that was set to expire early this year. That extension runs until Aug. 17. The county and company have “negotiated a significant portion” of the new franchise agreement, according to the new extension proposal, and want to continue toward it.
The latest extension approved this week runs through Feb. 17, 2018. It continues service terms from the earlier agreement, meaning rates stay the same while it’s in effect. It automatically terminates if and when the two sides reach a final agreement before the expiration date.
The decision isn’t one county leaders want to make lightly.
“Council will be updated in a couple weeks on where we are in negotiations,” Love said. “It’s a big deal and lots of back and forth.”
Last year, optimism arose among many in Lake Wylie that a water service change could come. Then state Rep. Ralph Norman called a community meeting in April, and another in August. Hundreds came out to hear options for water service. The reasoning was, for the first time in decades the county had a reasonable opportunity to buy out or otherwise switch service as the franchise agreement ended.
“Eventually we want to get York County to have the residents buy directly from them,” Norman said at the time. “With Carolina Water, they have simply not measured up to what they contractually should have, or morally.”
Resident complaints about the utility company have been constant: Rate increases are too common, system upgrades and service improvements too uncommon, they’ve said. Hundreds attended the meetings last year to air concerns. Hundreds have gathered and spoken out against rate increases before the state public service commission. Carolina Water often is the first question at community meetings held by Love or other county leaders.
“It goes without saying both as a neighborhood and within the business community, we're disappointed,” said long-time River Hills resident and Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce Board President Charles Wood. “They had more than enough time in 2016 to look at seriously doing something with that contract, and they let that time slip by.”
Wood is concerned the latest extension won’t be the last.
“I believe going forward that it will be consistent six-month to 12-month extensions,” he said. “Meanwhile as the area continues to grow, it’s only going to get more expensive to negotiate a buyout, if that’s one of the things being considered.”
County leaders haven’t offered many contract details throughout the process. Bill Shanahan, county manager, has said multiple times that the existing franchise agreement was written and heavily weighted toward Carolina Water interests. The agreement dates back to 1992.
“Whoever did the contract did a great job — for them,” Shanahan told residents at a roundtable event in February. “It’s a contract that was written for them.”
At that same event, Love told residents the county is working diligently toward a solution, but not to “get your hopes up” that the county would purchase the system because any move has to make financial sense.
A purchase has precedent. The former Tega Cay Water Service, a sister company of Carolina Water, was purchased by the city of Tega Cay in 2014 for $5.85 million. That system had similar consumer complaints of cost and failing infrastructure, including repeated sewage spills prompting the state health department to issue penalties.
Like Tega Cay, York County already has a public utility system it could use to transition the system if a purchase agreement were reached. Another option with Carolina Water is to keep the private utility but negotiate more favorable service or price terms for the county.
Wood said in Lake Wylie, system improvements aren’t being made, customer concerns are consistent and with constant residential growth and more customers coming onto the system, the company is “going to want a fortune to even consider selling.”
“They've just got a money machine, and they're milking it for everything it's worth," he said.
Though many in Lake Wylie are frustrated the county couldn’t reach an agreement last year, Wood said he also understands the county doesn’t want to act rashly when buying or changing terms on a 50-year-old system.
"I'm sure the county doesn't want to take over basically an antique system for a high dollar price," he said.