Now that elections are over, Lower Richland residents are eager to find out whether the county will cut them a break to become sewer service customers, something many say would be a financial burden.
In early September, the 11-member council decided to delay construction while looking into the financial impact of covering all connection fees for residents, among other things. In the meantime, the county’s longtime utilities director, Andy Metts, left for a job in Chapin.
County spokeswoman Beverly Harris said the $20 million project is tentatively planned for discussion at the council’s Dec. 2 meeting.
“We kind of figured it would be put on hold until after the elections,” said Helen Taylor Bradley, a leader of the Hopkins and Lower Richland Citizens United, a group that organized over the summer, when the project was announced.
The chief question is whether the county, using primarily a federal loan and grant, can cover connection fees for residents. Many have said they can’t afford the $4,000 tap fee, plus the cost of running lines between their home and the transmission line and the cost of covering their septic system.
But there are technical questions, too, like what is meant by a “failing” septic system. County officials maintain they would not force anyone to tie on to the public system but say a state law could require someone with a failing septic system to connect.
Bradley and others also have complained that the application for service says the county can place a lien on the property of customers who don’t pay their monthly bills of $37.60, and that contractors would not be liable for damage to private property, like landscaping, when laying the lines.
“We’ve had some people say it’s free to tap on, but we haven’t seen any of that in writing,” Bradley said.
Council spokeswoman Monique McDaniels said the staff is holding up distribution of a survey, asking residents who want to sign up for service, until council members have a chance to review the information they requested.
Councilman Bill Malinowski, who represents an area with county sewer service, was the most skeptical about the project. Efforts to reach him Friday were unsuccessful.
Councilman Norman Jackson was on the November ballot for re-election and came under attack for his support of the project, which would run collection lines for 24 miles, from the intersection of Lower Richland Boulevard at Garners Ferry Road through Hopkins and south to a county treatment plant in the town of Eastover.
Jackson, chairman of the council, said Friday the project must go forward. He noted the county has an agreement with the city of Columbia to have the system up and running by Oct. 1, 2017. “It will be built,” Jackson said, “if not by the county by the city, and we’d rather have control.”
Jackson said county staff is working to get clearance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use provided funds for residents to connect to the system. The USDA has put up a $9.3 million loan and a $2.3 million grant for the project.
The project grew out of a demand by developers, at the height of the home-building boom, who pressured the city and county for a service plan. Another motivation is to address poor wastewater treatment systems in Lower Richland that risk polluting the groundwater.
The county has about 1,000 guaranteed customers already, people who live in the county and will switch from being city of Columbia sewer customers. The county needs 200 more to make the numbers work, though.
County officials were hoping to break ground on the first part of the project this fall.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey issued preliminary findings that the Congaree National Park is being polluted, with scientists pointing to leaking sewage and farm runoff as the probable source. The survey is working on a more extensive study that should be completed in the next two years.
“I just want to make sure this isn’t a political ploy to pass the sewer project,” said Cameo Green, part of the group resisting the county’s overtures.
Green said residents care about the park, and want what’s best for the park and the people.