Lawmakers ask court to halt Graniteville water rate hike

AIKEN – Area state representatives announced this afternoon they have received a temporary court injunction stopping a recent decision to reinstitute higher water and sewer rates for Graniteville and Vaucluse customers.

 

“At least for the short term, we’ve achieved a victory for the residents of Graniteville and Vaucluse,” said state Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, who made the announcement in front of the Aiken County Courthouse along with State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, and Sen. Shane Massey, whose district includes Aiken.

“I’m absolutely elated that something’s being done,” said Graniteville resident Wayne Johnson, who was among a small group of residents attending the news conference. “They’ve worked hard.”

The lawmakers were quick to note, though, that the order doesn’t address the higher rates but focuses on their argument that residents should have been given proper notice of when the rates would be enacted. That way, the lawmakers said, residents could have adjusted their watering before being billed.

The lawmakers said state law required a notice to be published in The Aiken Standard within 10 days of the rates being initially approved by the South Carolina Public Service Commission in June, but argued that didn’t happen.

“This is about the simple concept of notice,” Mr. Massey said.

The temporary restraining order is pending a 2 p.m. August 25 hearing before Judge Jack Early at the Aiken County Courthouse and comes one day after the PSC decided a second time to allow the new rates. In some cases, the higher rates caused customers’ bills to increase by hundreds of dollars.

On Aug. 5 the PSC voted to temporarily suspend the new rates pending yesterday’s meeting. The issue of the higher fees, the lawmakers said, is now set to be readdressed by the PSC on Oct. 6.

Today’s court order, which was granted by Judge Michael Baxley, prevents Avondale from collecting under the new rate by Saturday’s due date or imposing late fees pending the August 25 hearing.

The lawmakers said that unless Avondale comes back with another offer, Graniteville and Vaucluse customers shouldn’t have to pay their bills at least until the August 25 hearing, where the judge is expected to rule whether a more permanent restraining order should be issued.

The new rates were approved by the PSC in June, being requested by Avondale Mills, the company that oversees the Graniteville water system. Avondale officials have argued that since mill operations ceased in the area they had been losing money subsidizing the water system. They said the rate increases were needed to help the company break even, adding that customers were given a 60-day notice and there were two public meetings on the topic.

Avondale officials said they didn’t agree with the PSC’s Aug. 5 vote to suspend the rates and planned to fight any reversal.

The area delegation said Avondale officials had “refused” to discuss the notice issue and have now been made aware of the injunction.

The delegation also said at today’s conference that a long-term solution is in the works for another entity, likely the Valley Public Service Authority, to take over the system. They said they hoped that would produce lower rates in the long term. Mr. Young said the goal is to have the VPSA or another entity take over the service by the end of the year and implement major improvements to the system using available stimulus dollars.

Reach Preston Sparks at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com

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