Saluda Co. Authority makes last-ditch appeal to win B-L’s water business

Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority general manager Jason Fell speaks at Batesburg-Leesville Town Council work session Monday night. Staff photo by Tony Baughman

The Batesburg-Leesville Town Council gave audience Monday night to the concerns of the Saluda County Water & Sewer Authority (SCWSA) that their best offer to sell water to Batesburg-Leesville wasn’t accurately represented in the Town’s much-ballyhooed alternative water supply study.

Jason Fell, general manager of the SCWSA, spoke to Town Council at a roundtable work session requested by Council members Steve Cain, Cynthia Etheredge, Bob Hall and Shirley Mitchell. A large audience of interested citizens also crammed the Council chambers, spaced out as much as possible for COVID-19 safety.

In mid-March, during a meeting with three members absent, Town Council voted 6-0 to purchase all of the Town’s future wholesale water from the Lexington County Joint Municipal Water & Sewer Commission (JMWSC). This, even as a year-long independent study conducted by Columbia-based engineering firm Hazen & Sawyer showed that the total 30-year cost of purchasing water from JMWSC – including construction costs and wholesale water – would be almost $3 million more expensive than the Saluda County option.

If the Town of Batesburg-Leesville had opted instead to create its own raw water supply from Lake Murray and treat the water for consumption, the total cost would have exceeded $54.9 million, according to the study.

Mr. Fell argued to Town Council that the Hazen & Sawyer study did not fully reflect all of the advantages of selecting Saluda County rather than JMWSC.

“There were discrepancies in the study compared to what I have provided. I gave Town Council the most accurate information last night; what they do with that information, I cannot control,” Mr. Fell said Tuesday afternoon.

In his Monday night presentation, Mr. Fell stated that going with Saluda County Water & Sewer could save the Town of Batesburg-Leesville more than $557,000 per year compared to the JMWSC offer.

“They can use that savings to develop the rest of their water system,” he said. “With this proposal, Batesburg-Leesville can address future growth on Highway 1 and Lake Murray.”

At Monday’s work session, Mr. Fell said that some of the benefits of purchasing water from SCWSA were not accurately represented in the water study – which the Town kept under wraps until after the Town Council had voted to award the water deal to JMWSC.

Those advantages, Mr. Fell said, include award-winning water quality by taste and clarity. The agency won the Best Tasting Water award at the South Carolina Environmental Conference two months after opening its new $23 million water treatment plant in the Leesville area near Lake Murray.

More importantly, Mr. Fell said, the water alternative study did not accurately reflect that the JMWSC option would cost the Town millions of dollars more in upfront capital costs for constructing more than 11.3 miles of water lines east toward Lexington versus running 3.1 miles of pipe to connect to Saluda County Water & Sewer’s pipes north of the Town limits.

The new Saluda County plant is currently permitted to pump and treat four million gallons of water per day from Lake Murray, with plans and permits in place to expand to as much as 12 million gallons capacity per day. The SCWSA proposal that was incorrectly reflected in the B-L alternative water study promises that the utility would guarantee Batesburg-Leesville the opportunity to purchase two million gallons per day at a cost of $1.98 per 1,000 gallons.

“If you can save money on this side of getting access to water, you can develop your Lake Murray area. You can develop your Highway 1 and reach all those new subdivisions coming in,” Mr. Fell said. “In my instance, this is not a scarcity mentality; it’s an abundance mentality. This whole region can prosper – not just SCWSA, not just Gilbert but everybody throughout. We’re all going to be better for it.”

Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull was not convinced that the numbers offered by Mr. Fell outweigh the advantages of moving forward with the Town Council’s binding decision from March to buy finished water from the Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission.

“I still believe economies of scale in Lexington County will provide the better option for a lower water rate and a stable water rate for Batesburg-Leesville over the next 40 years,” the mayor said.

Near the end of the work session, as Mr. Fell was fielding questions from members of Town Council, Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority board vice-chairman Al Stevens stepped out of the gallery and announced that he was ending Mr. Fell’s presentation. The sudden departure came as Councilman Olin Gambrell began calling into question Mr. Fell’s abilities as general manager of the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority.

When Mr. Fell said that he did not receive a copy of the Town’s final water alternative study until two weeks ago, Councilman Gambrell stated that a “good manager” would have communicated earlier with the Town leadership to get a copy of the study.

In the parking lot following the meeting, Mr. Stevens expressed disappointment with the Councilman’s statement in the public work session.

“I felt that the Council person was getting more personal attack than requesting information, and we strictly came to cooperate with Batesburg and just to present the facts — not to take any kind of personal abuse,” Mr. Stevens said. “So that ended the meeting and I said, ‘Let’s go.'”

The Batesburg-Leesville now will meet for a second time this week Wednesday night for another single-item agenda. The Council will meet at 6 p.m. for a public hearing on the fiscal year 2020-21 budget followed by second reading.

The public is invited and welcomed to attend.