Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Conway's water and sewer rates. The story has been updated.
South Carolina cities would not be allowed to charge county residents more for water and sewer service than city residents pay if a bill being pushed by a Carolina Forest legislator becomes law.
State Rep. Tim McGinnis, a Republican, introduced the bill in May after years of hearing complaints from residents in Waterford Plantation and other nearby areas who receive water from the City of Conway and pay double the rate that city residents are charged.
“I just don’t think that’s a fair deal,” McGinnis said. “When your neighbor’s paying $40 a month for water and you’re paying $80 for water, I just don’t think it’s the city’s business to be in business.”
The debate over water rates dates back decades. Because of contracts from the early 1970s, some Carolina Forest area residents and businesses receive water from Conway instead of the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority (GSWSA), which services the rest of Carolina Forest.
Residential development in Carolina Forest didn’t take off until 1997, meaning virtually every home or business in the affected areas inherited the water service markup.
Discussions about lowering the water rates have often drawn objections from Conway leaders, who have said reducing the Carolina Forest area rate would force the leaders to increase city resident water rates by a reciprocal amount. They’ve also pointed out that non-city residents don’t pay the same property taxes that municipal residents pay.
“We have litigated this whole matter before and we won,” City of Conway spokeswoman Taylor Newell said. “We are not in support of the bill.”
Newell is right about the lawsuits.
In 2001, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that Conway’s water rate structure was constitutional. The court even said cities had “an obligation to sell its surplus water for the sole benefit of the city at the highest rate attainable.”
Traditionally, the state’s courts have ruled that cities do not have a responsibility to nonresidents to provide them with services on reasonable terms, according to records from the S.C. Municipal Association. In fact, it’s common for municipalities in South Carolina to charge nonresidents double the in-city rate for water and sewer service.
In Conway, for example, city residents pay $1.94 per 1,000 gallons of water used while non-city residents on the same system pay $3.88 per 1,000 gallons. Conway sewer rates are also higher: $3.26 per 1,000 gallons inside the city and $6.52 per 1,000 gallons in the unincorporated areas.
Conway provides water to more than 8,100 accounts that are outside the city limits, Newell said. That includes nearly 1,500 east of Gardner Lacy Road.
Statewide, there hasn’t been interest from the cities in changing that structure.
“With regard to the [McGinnis] bill, the association generally does not support legislation that erodes the authority of local elected officials to make local decisions that affect local residents,” said Scott Slatton, legislative and public policy advocate for the municipal association, via email.
Under the McGinnis bill, municipalities would not only have to charge nonresidents the same water rates as city residents, but the cities would also be prohibited from requiring that a homeowner’s property be annexed as a condition for maintaining or receiving water and sewer service.
“That’s great news,” said Carole vanSickler, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association and a Waterford Plantation resident. “It’s long overdue. … It’s only fair to give us equal water rates.”
McGinnis’ bill has been referred to the House Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry.