A slew of Greenville County environmental leaders turned out virtually Monday in support of County Council’s plan to consolidate all of the sewer districts in unincorporated areas into one unified system while officials within the affected districts maintained opposition to a plan that will strip residents of the ability to elect sewer commissioners.
The comments came during a mandatory public hearing held both in-person at County Square and via Zoom. The council allowed anyone who signed up to speak, regardless of time limits.
Those lobbying for consolidation include groups frequently at odds.
The plan to bring the county’s disparate sewer systems into one fold brought together environmentalists and homebuilders. Environmentalists want to see the county’s water quality improve with plans to upgrade leaking sewer lines countywide, while homebuilders see the potential benefit of standardized costs and greater capacity in a single system.
Michael Corley, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, said smaller districts across the country have more maintenance issues, water quality issues and legal issues than a larger, efficient system.
“I think it’s telling that you have Upstate Forever, myself, other environmental leaders along with realtors and the homebuilders association all speaking in favor of the same outcome here,” Corley said.
Those opposed to consolidation said the county hasn’t invited their districts to the decision-making table.
The affected districts include Berea Public Service District; Gantt Fire, Sewer and Police District; Marietta Water, Fire, Sanitation, and Sewer District; Parker Sewer and Fire Sub-District; Taylors Fire and Sewer District; and the Wade Hampton Fire and Sewer District. The county would dissolve the sewer special purpose districts and create fire service areas to continue handling fire protection.
The county is relying on a study that shows a pressing need to fix leaking sewage pipes countywide. However, the study was commissioned by MetroConnects, an entity of ReWa, the regional sewer authority that stands to benefit from consolidation.
One by one, sewer district leaders spoke of millions they’ve spent to upgrade sewer lines already and millions more they plan to invest in the coming years.
Marietta has fixed all but a mile of its sewer lines in a plan approved by ReWa, and they’ve done it on schedule and without going into debt, said Robbie Childs, an attorney representing Marietta Water and Sewer District.
Childs called the county’s plan illegal, while Rita Bolt Barker, an attorney representing two sewer districts, said they planned to challenge any action the county takes on the issue.
Childs said the plan would strip the assets away from the people of Marietta and give them to ReWa, a multi-billion-dollar organization. It would strip away the rights of the people of Marietta to elect their own sewer commissioners along with it, he said.
“As our nation struggles with democracy at its highest level today it is being stolen at its closest level right here with this proposal, because this proposal proposes to take their right to vote on whether or not to dissolve their special purpose district away,” he said.
Four sewer districts unsuccessfully tried in court to halt the county from holding its hybrid meeting. Several speakers Monday reiterated that the county hadn’t heard all interested parties and that many affected residents don’t have internet and couldn’t attend in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.
County Council Chairman Butch Kirven has said previously the council wants to enact consolidation before the end of the year before a new session begins in January.
Yet multiple speakers cited the county’s latest comprehensive plan, passed last year unanimously by County Council, that calls for the county to work toward a unified sewer system.
For the majority of future growth to take place in the middle third of the county, sewer consolidation and growth is needed, said Andrea Cooper, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Upstate Forever.
“We fully support the vision of the comprehensive plan, which was developed in concert with county leaders, stakeholders and hundreds of county residents,” Cooper said. “We believe that to realize that vision county leaders must take action to consolidate sanitary sewer collection and treatment.”
Speakers in favor of consolidation also included representatives of Save Our Saluda and Friends of the Reedy River.
Allen Kay, chairman of Parker Sewer and Fire District, said he is most worried about the employees and retirees of his district. The district has 75 retirees and 120 employees with benefits promised to them for life.
“Who is going to furnish those people with their benefits if this consolidation takes place?” Kay said. “My concern is no one is going to care about those people. They’re going to drop between the cracks. They won’t matter anymore.”
Consolidation could change how customers pay for sewer, switching to appearing on property tax bills instead of water bills. Sarah Franco, a Parker commissioner, said it will likely mean bills will more than double for the lower and middle-income residents in her district.
Franco compared bills from 2018 and 2019 for a MetroConnects customer when the sewer collector changed billing from property taxes to a fee and use charge on water bills. For a $150,000 house, the price rose 160 percent. From $79 per year to more than $260.
If the plan moves ahead this year, council would vote after a second reading at its Dec. 1 meeting and would need to schedule a special meeting to finalize the plan before the end of the year.