Lake Wylie residents may be paying Carolina Water Service for water, but they aren’t buying it.
“We’re a cash cow, and every time they need more money they come to us,” said Sabrina Anthony, who with husband Martin bought what they thought was their retirement home in Lake Wylie. Now, they might move because of the high cost of water.
“The problem isn’t that they ask for it. The problem is they get it,” she said about rate increases.
More than 50 residents turned out Monday night to question the company as it seeks to increase water and sewer rates.
“Every two years we go through this, just like clockwork,” resident Don Long said.
Carolina Water officials acknowledged that nobody likes rate increases, but they contend the hikes are needed to pay for system improvements already made. Carolina Water serves about 28,000 people in South Carolina, including more than 9,700 in York County, second only to its service totals in the Columbia area.
Robert Yanity with Carolina Water said residents aren’t wrong when they say increases seem scheduled. In a way, they are.
“That’s part of our model, to come in more regularly with relatively smaller increases, compared to coming in after maybe five years and doubling your rate,” Yanity said.
System-wide, Carolina Water is asking for increases of 15 to 18 percent for base water rates, 30 percent for the per gallon usage and 21 to 32 percent for sewer service. Rates vary some by location and usage type.
A decision from the South Carolina Public Service Commission should come in May.
York County has 33 smaller well systems served by Carolina Water, but most of its customers — largely in Lake Wylie — purchase water the company gets from York County, after York County buys it from the city of Rock Hill. Carolina Water said the typical bill in the Lake Wylie area for combined water and sewer is about $97 a month now.
The increase, if approved, would bring it to $125.
The company challenged the idea Yanity said they’ve heard before, that rates here are higher than anywhere else. He showed data with Carolina Water ranking above Rock Hill and below Clover, just a little higher than Fort Mill, for water costs. And sewer service rates are well below all three municipalities.
Residents balked at the comparison.
“You’re using out-of-town rates for every one of those municipalities,” Long said. “Those are significantly higher.”
Municipalities typically charge double their in-town rates to customers outside town or city limits who are on the municipal system. Long said it’s “not a fair comparison” showing the higher numbers compared to Carolina Water, while several other residents said they wouldn’t trust anything else the company had to say, accusing the utility of using “misleading” or “bogus” numbers.
Yanity said the rates presented are for out-of-town municipal rates, but the idea wasn’t to mislead anyone. There are people who pay those rates, he said, proving the point that Carolina Water isn’t the most expensive distributor as residents claim.
“There are other people who pay similar or higher rates,” Yanity said.
While price was a sticking point for many, it wasn’t the only concern residents brought Monday night.
“You want to increase (rates) by 20 to 30 percent and the water is not even drinkable?” Anthony said. “I don’t even want to wash in it, bathe in it, wash my clothes in it. It’s so disgusting.”
She mentioned what happened to some brand new towels.
“They were white,” Anthony said. “When we finished washing them, they were black. They had residue all over them. This water is not safe to drink, I don’t care what you say. It’s not safe.”
Water suppliers have to flush their systems at least once a year. Carolina Water leaders say they do routine water testing and haven’t found it to be unsafe. Residents weren’t hearing it.
“You can’t drink that,” Anthony said. “It smells like bleach. I don’t know how anyone drinks that water. It’s horrible.”
Ellie Ackerman has family visit for the holidays. There are 11 in all, adults and children.
“The first thing I have to tell them when they come into the house is, don’t drink the water,” Ackerman said.
Another resident brought a jar of water he said came from his tap Monday, calling it “pretty nasty what you expect us to drink.”
Other residents said they are “being killed by water rates,” that the company has a “complete monopoly, a license to make money” and that increases are “unjustifiable.” Some have had to put whole home filtration systems in on their own dime. Others argue they shouldn’t have to pay $60 for water when they aren’t even home to use any in a given month.
Carolina Water leaders brought information on taxes paid in South Carolina, on the $11 million system-wide improvements the past few years and, of that total, the $175,000 spent in York County converting a dry pit to a more modern system. They talked return on investment, and the 65 pump stations in the Lake Wylie area that could cost $15,000 each to replace as reason why statewide accounting and spending benefits the system.
Residents just wanted to know why they can’t feel safe drinking water from their own home, and how it should cost more when they haven’t seen improvements from past rate hikes.
“So don’t come up with your highfalutin slide show when this community has been putting money in your pockets, for you to stand here in your big suits, with your high-class stuff,” said resident Katherine King.