Tega Cay residents heading to computer in water case

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comSeptember 25, 2012 

  • Want to go? A public hearing to provide sworn testimony in the water rate increase case is set for 6 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Glennon Center in Tega Cay. Customers or other concerned parties were asked to call 803-896-5100 or write to Public Service Commission of South Carolina, Clerk’s Office, Post Office Drawer 11649, Columbia, SC 29211 for further or procedural information.

— Protest lines, picket signs and megaphones are so last century.

At least in Tega Cay, where a age of public problem solving can be measured in bandwidth and browser activity. Leaders there aren’t just passing paper petitions. They’re asking for clicks of a mouse.

“We’re doing everything we can,” said Linda Stevenson, member of the Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council. “We’re open to any suggestions that people may have.”

In August, Tega Cay Water Service applied for a rate increase of more than 18 percent for water, 67 percent for wastewater. Residents and city leaders quickly protested. They still are, and more of them are going online to do it.

The city’s website, tegacaysc.org, has a direct link for residents to fill out a protest form to be sent to the state Public Service Commission. An advisory council email made rounds offering tips and statistics for protest letters. Group member Kelly Macaluso is running norateincrease.org with information on the proposed increase and ways to protest it.

“We still don’t have the numbers that we’re looking for,” Stevenson said. “I’ve been told our group is making headway.”

In the hours after a community forum on the rate increase Sept. 13, residents weren’t evaluating meeting minutes or sign-in sheets. They were looking at new visitor and page view counts on norateincrease.com.

Macaluso blasted results on Sept. 14 for a 24-hour span, showing 51 new visitors and 204 page views. Average visits of almost 90 seconds peaked just prior to and following the forum, then again the next morning after radio broadcasts on the issue.

Also shown was that almost half of the page views were home page, followed by the protest link at about one-third of all views. About 80 percent of all traffic came from the Fort Mill/Tega Cay area, but organizers also saw what percentage came from York, Charlotte and even as far away as Seattle. Of most interest to Macaluso was the second largest chunk overall, coming from Columbia.

That’s where the Public Service Commission is located.

“We’ve got some people’s attention down there now,” Macaluso wrote to supporters.

Residents in Tega Cay are hoping for a result like the one other state residents got last year after Carolina Water Service applied for an 80 percent rate increase. The commission voted down that request 5-2 due in large part to customer complaints ranging from poor water quality to poor service and high cost. Carolina Water is a sister company of Tega Cay Water, both subsidiaries of Utilities Inc.

The higher-tech approach taken by Tega Cay residents on the proposal has similarities. The Carolina Water debate last year included 258 protests logged into the commission docket, compared to the 2009 Tega Cay Water request that drew four.

As of Monday morning, the current Tega Cay docket listed 380.

“They should not be given an increase, but on the contrary they should be heavily fined and forced to sell the system to the city of Tega Cay for what it is actually worth and not for the outrageous amount they have requested in the past when the city has been interested in buying it,” reads the protest letter from former Mayor Bob Runde.

Protests come from mayors past and present, elected officials, city staff, a restaurant and hundreds of homeowners. Many protests come on behalf of couples, further increasing the number of complaints. Protests offer many reasons, but come to the same conclusion: Apart from the company, nobody is happy about the request.

“I haven’t heard of anyone,” said Charlie Funderburk, operations manager for the city, “that is in favor of the rate increase.”

The vast difference in online, official protests compared to the most recent increase, Stevenson said, is a simple matter of knowing about the option.

“Our group didn’t know about it,” she said. “We never had a venue for how to tell these people we’re unhappy.”

The protest effort is largely, but not entirely, online. Last week, the Public Service Commission announced that a public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Glennon Center in Tega Cay. Sworn testimony will be taken for use in the final rate decision.

The water advisory group will have a booth at the city’s annual Fall Festival on Oct. 27 with protest forms. They’ve already attended a summer concert. Yard signs popped up briefly, and may again. They’re asking residents to monitor water and sewer concerns to present at the Dec. 3 meeting – whatever they can to get the result they want.

“We must defeat these people,” Stevenson said.

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