Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority is willing to provide water for thousands of Carolina Forest residents currently stuck paying higher bills for Conway service, but city leaders haven’t decided if they will accept the utility's offer.
The move would reduce water rates by more than half for people who live east of Conway and yet pay for city water.
“It seems to me that this is a deal that would work for everybody,” said state Rep. Tim McGinnis, R-Carolina Forest. “It would put these unincorporated communities on parity with the other unincorporated areas in the Carolina Forest [region]. I just hope that the city can be in favor of those residents.”
The offer was made by Grand Strand Water CEO Fred Richardson last month when he met with McGinnis, Conway Administrator Adam Emrick and Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy to discuss the city’s water rates. The meeting followed McGinnis’ introduction of a bill that would force cities to charge county residents the same rate for water and sewer service that residents inside municipalities pay.
Because of contracts dating back decades, some Carolina Forest residents and businesses receive water from the city instead of Grand Strand Water, which services the rest of Carolina Forest. McGinnis said he filed his bill after receiving complaints from Carolina Forest residents who pay twice what Conway homeowners do for the same water.
Conway provides water to more than 8,100 accounts outside the city limits, including nearly 1,500 east of Gardner Lacy Road. Non-city residents pay $3.88 per 1,000 gallons of water used while Conway residents pay $1.94 per 1,000 gallons on the same system.
Grand Strand Water’s base rate ($1.36 per gallon up to 8,000 gallons) is less than Conway’s in-city rate, according to the utility’s website.
In South Carolina, a municipality doubling the rates for non-city water customers is not unusual.
The state’s courts have generally 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 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.”
But Conway doesn't have to continue to providing water service to non-city residents.
Richardson, the head of Grand Strand Water, said the utility would not have to add any infrastructure to handle the Carolina Forest homes that are currently served by Conway. The utility wholesales the water to the city anyway, so a change would mainly involve the transfer of assets (i.e. pipes) and confirming customer account information. Grand Strand already provides sewer service to most of the Carolina Forest residents receiving Conway water.
“We’ve got the accounts set up,” he said. “But right now Conway’s sending them a water bill and we’re sending them a sewer bill."
Richardson said he has no problems with the existing system; Grand Strand’s simply willing to help if needed. However, he doubts the city will accept the proposal.
“I volunteered that we would probably be willing to buy the city out and adjust rates if they wanted to do that,” he said. “I think they’re making too much money to want to get rid of it.”
Conway spokeswoman Taylor Newell said city officials have not formally discussed Grand Strand Water's proposal, so it’s too early to say whether the city would agree to any transfer.
“As of right now, still nothing has changed from the city’s perspective,” she said.
Newell did note that the city annually examines its water rates. On Monday night, Conway City Council is scheduled to vote on the qualification for an engineer to conduct a water and wastewater system evaluation. Conway’s water rates will be part of that research, Newell said, “just to be sure we are in line with what other municipalities are charging and to make sure our prices are fair.”
The city council meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.