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Polk’s relatively small system is prompting a big debate marked by the politics of local water.

COLUMBUS—At a July 20 meeting, a majority of the Polk County Board of Commissioners indicated it favored moving forward with a plan to transfer management of the county’s water system, for a period of 75 years, to the Inman-Campobello Water District in upstate South Carolina.

The proposal, under discussion since last summer, has drawn strong protests from county residents who spoke during recent meetings of the board.

ICWD already runs the system and is contracted to do so for seven more years.

At the latest meeting devoted to the proposal, the county’s four Republican commissioners said that they back it. Most of their remarks were brief, other than those of board Chair Tom Pack, who spoke in detail with the county’s attorney and manager about tweaking a technical clause in the transfer contract.

The board’s only Democrat, Ray Gasperson, reiterated his opposition to the plan.

Pack and others have argued that the transfer would benefit Polk in the long run, cutting costs while maintaining good and affordable management of the water system, which is relatively small, and shedding costs of dam repairs at Lake Adger, which would be financed by ICWD.

Gasperson and an array of vocal locals have been critical of the plan, saying it’s being prepared in haste and without sufficient outside counsel, in a move that would potentially surrender ownership of a precious county resource for far too long.

In an investigation published last week, Carolina Public Press traced the history and status of the proposal with a close look at key turning points and pressures in the debate, which will likely continue for some additional months while the potential Polk County/ICWD contract is negotiated.

The latest version of the contract can be read below. At its next meeting, on Aug. 10, the board will review a revised version of the contract.

75-year reach supported by all but Gasperson

Pack began the special meeting on the water plan, which was held after the board’s regular meeting, by noting that the commissioners were convened to suggest any changes to the contract stemming from issues raised so far.

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Pack turned first to Gasperson, who restated his two main objections: the length of the contract and a perceived need to seek expert advice from an outside specialist.

“The obvious is the overwhelming numbers of citizens who have repeatedly said, ‘Why 75 years?,’” he said. “That totally stops it for me, in a big way.”

Pack asked the rest of the board for their opinions on the 75-year time period.

“I wouldn’t mind asking to see if we can get it run through” at that length, board Vice Chair Keith Holbert said. “The thing that most people have not been able to grasp is that Inman-Campobello is not looking to pull any water from Lake Adger for probably 50 years, because they’ve got enough before that. So, in essence, 75 years is going to be a less-than-full burden.”

Commissioner Michael Gage said, “I don’t have a problem with the 75 years, so long as the rest of the things we are asking for are still intact.”

“As long as we’re asking them that they’ll agree to what we ask for the next 75 years, I’m good,” commissioner Shane Bradley said.

Most commissioners see no need for outside advice

Gasperson also cited “the overwhelming support [of the idea] that we get an independent consultant in who can help us and guide us in this process.”

Such a move is needed “so we can figure out where we’re headed, because I don’t think we know right now,” he said.

Holbert said that “I pretty well understand this agreement, and with our attorney’s guidance, I don’t know that we necessarily need to go outside.”

Gage said that “I’m confident in what we’ve got here, and what our attorney has worked on, unless our attorney is coming to us and telling us we need to do that.”

“I’m good,” Bradley said. “I mean, I understand exactly what is in the contract.”

Pack asked County Attorney Jana Berg to give her perspective about the matter.

“As always, issues of policy are up to y’all; you get to decide,” she said. “But it is a complex contract, and it is for a very long term. And when it comes to valuing whether or not we’re getting fair compensation for the deal that we’re brokering, it takes in a lot of factors that I’m not qualified to say. There are lawyers that specialize in utilities. I’m not one of them, I’m a municipal lawyer.

“We’ve never had a contract this complex,” she added, before suggesting that Polk “have some advice about whether or not the deal we’re getting is good bang for the buck or if there’s another structure that we might want to consider.”

Pack then said: “This is buy-sell agreement, a trade agreement, is basically what it is. I’m familiar with doing these on a regular basis in my line of work.” Pack is president of manufacturing at a local carpet factory.

“It’s really not that complicated, the valuing it,” he said. “We can look at outside help on that. I think we’re looking to you [for] whether it’s legal.”

“I can do that,” Berg responded. “And I can tell you that what you’re proposing isn’t illegal.”

Later in the meeting, Gasperson asked Polk County Manager Marche Pittman if seeking a consultant’s guidance on the proposed water deal would be helpful.

“I personally wouldn’t have a problem with somebody else looking at it, but I’m not the board,” Pittman said. “I think there’s plenty of resources in North Carolina, and that if we chose to reach out and find somebody, we could find somebody.”

Gasperson asked, “And do you think that would be a good idea?”

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“I think we could find somebody really easily,” Pittman responded.

The meeting ended with Pack saying that at its next meeting, the board will consider any new changes to the contract.

“We’ll decide if we’re comfortable to send it back to Inman-Campobello and then get their take on our changes, and put the ping pong ball back on their side of the table,” he said.


Draft Water System Contract Between Polk County and ICWD, June 2015 (PDF)
Draft Water System Contract Between Polk County and ICWD, June 2015 (Text)

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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