When Bob Sweet saw what Santee Cooper charged his property owners association for leasing light poles, the price tag floored the Plantation Lakes resident.
The Carolina Forest community shells out more than $8,500 per month to lease the 220 poles and pay for their power. Sweet estimates the neighborhood has covered the cost of the infrastructure multiple times over.
“These are eye opening,” he said of the figures. “They are kind of jaw dropping. They are the things that will get people’s attention.”
So Sweet, who serves on the neighborhood’s street lights committee, began reaching out to other property owners associations to find out if they had faced similar charges. Last week, about 35 residents from 11 neighborhoods met at the Plantation Lakes clubhouse to discuss the lighting rates. Sweet hopes to galvanize local POAs in a campaign to urge the state-run utility to lower its rates, sell the POAs the poles at a reasonable price or at least offer a more equitable arrangement.
“Santee Cooper knows that that’s an onerous situation,” he said. “We’ve researched it. We’ve talked to attorneys. … [We have] a path forward that we’re convinced will do it.”
At the July 18 public meeting, state Rep. Tim McGinnis, who lives in Plantation Lakes, spoke with local POA leaders about their concerns and his talks with Santee Cooper staff.
McGinnis, who emphasized that he hasn’t taken a position on the matter, said the neighborhoods have few options, in part because the decision about which light poles to install was made at the time the community was developed. However, the Republican said POA leaders could take their concerns to a Santee Cooper committee that evaluates its rates.
“If Santee Cooper’s in the wrong, I want them to change it,” he said. “If anybody’s in the wrong, I want them to change it. … I have no problem pushing to get this heard.”
Sweet admits Plantation Lakes’ contract with the state-run utility is binding and a court challenge likely wouldn’t succeed, but he hopes applying public pressure will lead to meaningful change.
“Yes, it’s a legal document,” he said. “But it’s not an equitable arrangement.”
Despite the neighborhood's optimism, a Santee Cooper spokeswoman said the rates aren’t changing.
“We’ve been talking back and forth with them for a while now,” Santee Cooper’s Tracy Vreeland said. “They have the answers to a lot of these things. The bottom line is the builder put in the more expensive lights. And those rates are board approved. So even our president couldn’t change it. That’s what it’s set at to recoup our costs for putting those in.”
Vreeland said the concerns about the light poles have primarily come from Plantation Lakes, not other POAs. She said the neighborhood could replace the light poles with cheaper options, but there would be a cost associated with that.
She also said the community could purchase the existing poles.
“They would be allowed to buy the lights, poles and portions of the wiring from us,” she said. “However, the facilities would no longer be controlled by a utility, and they would be subject to the National Electric Code. This would involve additional expenses by the HOA. In addition, the lighting circuits would have to have protective devices and metering installed. The HOA would also be responsible for all maintenance and replacement of the system.”
Facing an uphill challenge, Sweet remains positive. He wants local neighborhoods to pool their efforts and knowledge, lead a strong social media campaign, prepare an open letter for the new CEO of Santee Cooper, and send letters to state lawmakers. He also stressed that POAs should do more research and coordinate with the nonprofit Carolina Forest Civic Association before trying to meet with Santee Cooper.
“We need to know where we’re going,” he said. “Not just sit back and say, ‘Hey, you guys are really sticking it to us here. What can you offer us?’ We don’t have a clue whether we consider that acceptable or not.”
For Mike Harriman, the struggle is familiar. The Sago Plantation resident attended last week’s meeting and talked about his community’s discussions with Santee Cooper. He said replacing about 60 poles there would cost the community close to $300,000.
“Everybody’s in the same boat,” he said, adding that state leaders need to be made aware of the situation. “This isn’t even fair at this point.”