Is asked-for sewage fix in Tega Cay reasonable?

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard

— Clamoring continued last week from residents calling for Tega Cay Water Service to be disconnected and for full city control of Tega Cay’s water and sewer service.

What residents and city officials can’t answer yet is what difference it could make and when.

“Part of the due diligence includes what condition the system is in and what it would take to repair,” said City Manager Charlie Funderburk. “There are a lot of questions we have to find answers to before we can take any steps toward acquiring the system.”

Tega Cay Water Service is a private company servicing older, mainly residential portions of the city. Residents, led by the half-dozen-member Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council, say sewage spills and other service issues warrant getting rid of the company.

Those conversations reignited in recent weeks as the company reported spills totaling more than 243,000 gallons into Lake Wylie in less than three weeks.

The citizen advisory group is getting inquiries not only locally but from Charlotte and elsewhere asking what can be done to protect the lake.

“We are seeing lots of comments on our Facebook page asking about this, too,” said group member Kelly Macaluso.

The most common demand is for the city to take over the system. Tega Cay already runs water and sewer service to newer portions of Tega Cay.

“If the city owned the system tomorrow,” Mayor George Sheppard said, “that doesn’t mean the spills would stop tomorrow.”

Aging system

City Council members met with about 70 residents in September to discuss sewage spills and what the city could do.

A city engineer priced options. The outlook was incomplete, he said, because the city doesn’t own the system or have full access to it.

Estimates were $3 million to repair lines or $2.11 million to pump wastewater to Rock Hill. An equalization basin and new treatment plant would cost $4.8 million.

None of those options change ownership.

Conversation then turned toward buying the system. “It’s really not the best alternative,” city engineer Joel Wood told residents. “It’s the alternative that Tega Cay could participate in.”

Sheppard said he expects the council to know more about whether a purchase makes sense in 30 to 60 days. Since ratepayers would foot the costs, the numbers would have to work.

In 2008, the York County Council offered to take over Carolina Water Service, a sister company of Tega Cay Water Service that serves Lake Wylie, but offered no payment.

“Because of the age of the system in River Hills, buying the system to bring it up to county standards was not an option,” said Tom Smith, former York County Councilman who then represented Lake Wylie.

Sheppard said what the county found then – that rates to cover needed improvements and purchase of the lines weren’t something they could ask of customers – could be what his city finds now.

“That could be it,” Sheppard said. “It may not be financially responsible.”

A long fix

The city’s system, Tega Cay Utilities Department, is less than 20 years old, compared to Tega Cay Water Service at about 40 years. Comparing the systems to cars the same age, Sheppard said TCUD isn’t just going stronger because it’s newer; it’s also better maintained.

Maintenance would improve under city ownership, he said.

“These are our friends,” Sheppard said. “These are our neighbors. This impacts all of us.”

Residents have said for years that the system isn’t being maintained properly, even given rate increases for maintenance improvements.

The company, however, says the system’s age, and not poor maintenance, are to blame.

“We have spent in excess of $2 million in just the last two years in Tega Cay, and we plan to spend more,” wrote Lisa Sparrow, president and CEO of parent company Utilities Inc. in a September letter to Gov. Nikki Haley. “Specifically, we have already made upgrades to our wastewater treatment plants to meet EPA limits, rebuilt numerous lift stations, performed annual maintenance in accordance with DHEC regulations, inspected more than 900 manholes, installed several hundred manhole inserts, locked manholes and made significant upgrades to the collection system pipe. We are currently using state-of-the-art technology released only earlier this year to identify potential blockages before they become a problem.”

Even if the city takes ownership and maintenance improves, it will take time to stop the spills entirely, Sheppard said.

“The spills are not going to stop just because the city owns the system,” he said, “but there will be more hands-on accountability.”

The city doesn’t have contracts in place with Tega Cay Water Service. The company is a wholesale water customer of York County and is regulated by the state Public Service Commission and Department of Health and Environmental Control.

All parties agree the spills need to stop, but they may not end soon.

“It’s not a situation that’s just going away,” Sheppard said.

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