Tuesday, October 19, 2004



By Anna B. Brutzman

When Greenville voters head to the polls Nov. 2, they will face two simple questions about the water they use to bathe their children, water their plants and quench their thirst.

Should the Greenville Water System force county customers to agree to be annexed into the city of Greenville in exchange for water service, and should all water system customers have a say in deciding who sits on the five-member governing board.

The issue is as simple as the ballot questions themselves: More than 100,000 of the water system's 145,000 customers live outside the city, yet county residents pay 50 percent more for water and can neither sit on the water commission board nor vote for its members.

Though the results of the ballot referendum carry no legal weight any such changes would require legislative action the issue goes to the heart of long-running debate over growth in the Greenville County, expansion of Greenville's borders and taxes.

To Buster's Barbershop owner Virgil Bonham, the issue is as clear as the water that comes out of the faucets at his Marietta business.

The water system's practices, he said, just don't make sense given the vast portions of its customer base that live in the county. "I don't even know who the commissioners are except the mayor and his appointee," he said at his shop on Geer Highway.

Sitting in one of the chairs getting a trim, Charles Monroe summed it up this way: "How can the water district take a public resource and not have a representative on the board?"

Greenville County Council member Joe Dill, who represents northern Greenville County, said it was questions like those that led him to push for putting the questions on the ballot. The Greenville County Council approved the referendum questions by voice vote this summer.

"The thing about representation on the water board is something that I've been hearing for years," Dill said.

But those who support the current system say city residents should control representation on the water system board because the city has taken all the risks over the years to borrow money and extend water lines.

And they say that in a state where annexation is extremely limited, cities need to offer some incentive to county residents and businesses to be annexed into the city.

"If they want to have input into Greenville city affairs, they need to be full-fledged citizens of the city of Greenville," said Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Greenville City Manager Jim Bourey said utilities are commonly offered to customers who have no say in how they are governed. He cited publicly owned electric utilities and the dozens of other municipal water authorities that offer services to unincorporated areas.

"People certainly can come to meetings," he said. The Greenville Water System meets publicly on the second Monday of each month. "The governing board members are looking at customers, not just city residents."The board is also looking at those customers as potential city residents. The water system requires all new customers within a mile of the city limits to sign an agreement that they will not fight annexation into the Greenville city limits if asked.

Opponents say a basic necessity like water shouldn't be threatened over an agreement to be annexed.

The system's general manager, Lynn Stovall, said about 80 have signed the agreement but no one has been annexed yet under the policy. Few, if any, complaints about the water system's annexation policy have come from individual property owners, Water System Board Chairman Vardry Ramseur said.

The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the annexation policy in 2001, though experts say legislators could pass a law banning the practice.

The most vocal opponents to the city's annexation aspirations have been the county's special purpose fire districts.

Taft Matney, spokesman for the Boiling Springs and Wade Hampton fire districts, said that when Greenville extends its city limits into existing fire districts the districts lose property tax revenue.

He said his clients will be taking a close look at the ballot-issue results to get a feel for what kind of support they have in the community.

The water system board, officially called the Greenville Commission of Public Works, was created under state statute and oversees a system owned and backed by the city of Greenville and its residents, officials said.

Because the Greenville Water System's board was created by the state, no county government or referendum can change its rules or composition, experts say. Still, the symbolic vote will gain statewide attention from legislators, who could change the system, Greenville Water System opponents say.

Two members are from the City Council, and the other three are city residents who are elected to six-year terms in citywide elections. No one has challenged an incumbent since 1999.

The Greenville Water System grew dramatically in the mid 1960s as a multitude of independent water districts agreed that one system would be more efficient and could better respond to growth patterns, Stovall said.

"If they hadn't done that, we'd have a bunch of special purpose districts around like the fire districts, and it would be a disaster," Ramseur said.

Over a 15-year period until the mid 1970s the water system bought the infrastructure in outlying areas and charged 50 percent more from the very beginning because of needed upgrades and expansions to lines, Stovall said.

"As it grew, we had to go out and borrow money," he said, adding that the system inside the city of Greenville is about the same size as it was in 1948.

The Greenville City Council approves that borrowing, he said, and puts its full faith and credit behind the bonds. From 1998 to 2002, he said, investment for new lines in the county was about $26.3 million. In that same period, $1.5 million was spent inside the city.

Dill, who himself receives water from the Blue Ridge water district, said he would prefer to see a system where customers vote like stockholders on who should be on the water system's board. He said another option would be to have an at-large member on the board from the county.

The men seated side-by-side waiting for a trim at Buster's Barbershop in Marietta said they had no problem with the way the Greenville Water System has handled its finances.

They said they don't mind paying for service and acknowledge it's relatively inexpensive. A 2002 report from the South Carolina Budget and Control Office showed that only three communities in the state had cheaper water than Greenville the city of Seneca and the towns of Luray and Sharon.

But problems arise from time to time, they said, and they want to know who to hold accountable. After a few minutes under Bonham's shaver, several lingered to chat about their experiences leaking water lines and mud backing up in the system.

Buster's customer David Bailey said he has struggled for 20 years with the Greenville Water System to get better water pressure at his Ebenezer Church Road home.

"I've called so many times they don't even talk to me," he said.



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