Representative seeks to soak water customers

April 14, 2017

Inside Insight

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This legislative interference never ends

By HANNAH HILL

An interesting bill was filed in the House last week. H.4091 would abolish the five-member board of the Pioneer Rural Water District (currently elected by its customers) and replace it with a seven-member board selected by the Oconee and Anderson County legislative delegations.

At the end of the bill, there’s also this: “The district shall not construct a water treatment facility unless it can prove by clear and convincing evidence that no other feasible option capable of meeting the demands of its service area is available.”

That seemed odd, so I called Terry Pruitt, the manager of the Pioneer Rural Water District, and he told me a startling story.

Pioneer buys all its water from the cities of Seneca and Westminster in Oconee County and resells it to its customers. Between 2008 and 2012, the city of Westminster raised its rates 174 percent, Pruitt said. After a feasibility study, the board of directors (the same board that was selected by the Pioneer Water customers) determined that building its own water treatment plant and taking water from Lake Hartwell was the most cost-effective option.

In 2012, Rep. Bill Sandifer of Oconee filed a bill that would have replaced the customer-selected board with one selected by lawmakers, and prevented construction of a water treatment plant until 2016. The final version of this bill — which passed and is now law — shortened board members’ terms and added additional hoops the district had to jump through before it could build a water treatment plant. One of the new conditions was that an independent audit must be conducted and presented to the customers before any action could be taken.

According to Pruitt, all of the new conditions have been met. Construction on the plant began in January.

Then Westminster asked the district to stop building and offered it a rate reduction.

Pioneer considered the offer, but determined that the rate reduction wouldn’t offset the cost of building the new plant (to date, $6 million has been spent). According to the district’s latest financial calculations, customers would see a $4-per-month increase in rates if the new plant is built. If building stopped and the district continued buying water at the reduced rate, the cost to the customers would go up an estimated $8-$12 per month.

Plant construction continued.

At that point, according to Pruitt, Rep. Sandifer filed H.4091. (Sandifer did not return our calls regarding this story.) The bill currently resides in the House Labor, Commerce and Industry committee, which Sandifer chairs.

When you think about it, this type of power-grab — which is not unusual for state lawmakers — is simply confounding.

Using the force of government to halt citizens’ actions when citizens are providing for their needs as they see fit is dubious in so many ways. Stripping control of the district from the customers who pay the rates and handing it to an already too-powerful legislature is just adding insult to injury.

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