Residents plea for rate relief

GRANITEVILLE --- Graniteville and Vaucluse residents filled Byrd Elementary School's auditorium Tuesday in a final local attempt to sway the South Carolina Public Service Commission to lower and stabilize water rates.

Residents testified for about two hours -- some garnering laughter and others affirming shouts from the crowd -- about the Avondale Mills rate increase that was announced to the 550 customers July 31, the day they received higher bills.

"Why should a small mill town community pay more than Aiken and Augusta?" said Maureen Lewis, whose bill jumped from $34.03 in June to $146 in July. "These rates could make Graniteville and Vaucluse become a ghost town."

Many residents spoke of the hard hits the community has endured the past several years: the Graniteville train wreck, high unemployment and the national economic downturn. For those reasons, many residents asked the commissioners to reconsider the water rates.

Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt, a Graniteville resident, said his July bill was $714, 10 times more than the previous month.

"This has a hurt a lot of people," he said. "We knew it was coming, but we had no idea it was all coming at once."

Several residents laughed when Linda Miller described the poor water pressure and quality Avondale customers endure.

"Some days it's fine. Some days you have to run around to get wet (in the shower)," she said. "Little has been done to update the water system. It's not the consumers' fault. It's outright negligence on (Avondale's) part."

Avondale Mills has filed its testimony on the water rates, which likely will be shared during Tuesday's PSC hearing in Columbia, Rep. Tom Young said.

"I don't think anybody believes a rate increase is not just; it's just the amount of the increase considering the socioeconomic state of the area," he said. "We're hoping they'll really consider the testimony of the people."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.