If change is coming to water service in Lake Wylie, it’s going to have to start with a story.
“We need to document everything, the way Tega Cay did,” state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, told about 100 people Tuesday night in Lake Wylie. “We have to tell our story.”
Norman is leading a push back against Carolina Water Service. He’d like to see York County buy the utility system serving 4,000 homes and businesses in Lake Wylie. Or for another entity to run it. Norman points to high prices, unkempt infrastructure, poor service and reports earlier this year of lead in water as reasons.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to be able to do something about it.”
“We are dealing with a large sum of money, but, as a council, we hear you,” York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said. “We hear what you’re saying. I’m sure we can come up with a solution. Be patient.”
Early next year, the franchise agreement between the county and Carolina Water expires, which gives county leaders an opening for discussion with the utility. But, County Manager Bill Shanahan said, it isn’t as simple as waiting and waving goodbye to the company.
“Whoever wrote this agreement wrote an awesome agreement for the water company,” he said.
That agreement dates back to 1992. If Feb. 17 comes and goes without an ownership change or a new or revised franchise agreement, the county risks an automatic 20-year extension. An outright sale isn’t an easy option.
“They do not want to sell the system,” Shanahan said. “They see a lot of advantages to having it.”
Norman, a developer himself, recognizes Carolina Water is a private utility and there is only so much elected officials can do.
“We can’t make them sell,” he said. “We can make it so miserable for them, they want to sell.”
Which is what happened in Tega Cay.
Two years ago, the city bought Tega Cay Water Service after years of complaints similar to what Lake Wylie residents have. Tega Cay Water Service was a subsidiary of Illinois-based Utilities Inc, as is Carolina Water Service.
Every mayor in Tega Cay’s history had a purchase proposal presented him, Mayor George Sheppard said, up to the roughly $8 million figure predecessor Bob Runde got and the $12 million Sheppard received.
“They told us that was a deal,” Sheppard said.
The city eventually bought the system for $5.85 million.
Public pressure is a capable tool, the mayor said, but it cuts both ways. Tega Cay residents complaining about sewage spills and other issues led to extensive news coverage. The publicity made it difficult for Tega Cay leaders to find a bank willing to back their purchase.
But it made the company more willing to sell its asset.
“That hurt us, but it also helped us,” Sheppard said. “There was a double-edged sword.”
Norman wants to wield something similar. He wants residents to document any service problem, price inconsistency or other issue related to water service. He asked residents to research residential and commercial rates, along with issues like contaminants and wastewater spills. The group that met Tuesday discussed online petitioning and social media interaction.
State regulators need as detailed and wide-ranging a list of service issues as possible, Sheppard said.
“One of the things that helped us was poor customer service,” he said. “You’re not getting what you’re paying for. It’s not just the water.”
The county has a prior appraisal for the water and sewer system, and county leaders recently asked Carolina Water for another. With the company disinterested in selling, Shanahan said, there isn’t a price on the table, but figures he mentioned Tuesday were about $15 million to purchase the system and $18 million to bring it up to county standards.
County leaders aren’t committed to paying those amounts even were the company to agree to them. The hope would be to bring the numbers low enough that a sale makes sense for taxpayers, as happened in Tega Cay.
Still, even largely hypothetical figures show how big a decision awaits the county.
“We’re looking at about $30 million,” Shanahan said. “We’re trying to keep it as a low estimate.”
Norman will host more public meetings in coming months. Part of getting the price to an agreeable level, and getting the company to consider selling at all, involves public pressure.
“We’re going to make it as miserable for them as we can,” Norman said.