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Camden beginning year with ‘a lot of good news’

Posted: January 16, 2014 5:16 p.m.
Updated: January 17, 2014 5:00 a.m.

In addition to learning that a major catfish tournament championship will be held this October on Lake Wateree (see accompanying story), there was a lot of good news in Camden City Council’s first work session of the new year Tuesday.

Near the beginning of the work session, City Manager Mel Pearson announced that that the city could save an estimated $1.24 million over 10 years by re-funding, or refinancing, a portion of a 2004 bond. The city refinanced an earlier, $4 million portion of the bond a year ago. Now, Pearson said, another portion is available to refinance. To do so, the city would borrow about $9.83 million on a 10-year term at what Pearson said might be around 2.25 percent -- a considerably lower rate that the 2004 original of 4.7 percent.

“Of that 2004 bond issue, which was a total of $22,500,000 … we have either paid the principal off -- just over $11 million -- or we have re-funded it, as you have been part of … with a much better interest rate,” Pearson said.

The remaining balance, which stands at about $835,000, would still be paid back at the original higher rate, he said. Pearson said a formal ordinance to refinance the $9.83 million portion of the bond will be presented for council’s consideration at a subsequent meeting.

More savings could come if the S.C. State Revolving Fund (SRF) agrees to amend the city’s more than $33 million loan to construct its new wastewater treatment plant. Pearson said the SRF Authority recently decided that municipalities with at least an “A” bond rating do not have to maintain a debt service reserve fund equal to one half of the annual debt service for the loan. According to a copy of a letter Pearson sent to the SRF, the city currently has an “A1” rating from Moody’s and “A” from Standard & Poor’s.

“In 2012, when we borrowed the money, we had to put down $1,065,000 to be held in escrow to ensure that our loan payments were going to be made,” Pearson explained. “Typically, they require a 12-month period, which would have been about $2 million. But we negotiated, in the process of borrowing the money, a 6-month debt service fund. Their new policy is not requiring that and when we heard they were considering that, that’s what prompted this letter.”

Pearson said the letter essentially asks the SRF to refund the city for the amount in the reserve fund which now, with interest, stands at $1.098 million. He said the money would go back into the city’s bond accounts to be used toward future debt service. Pearson also said the city may turn to the SRF for future infrastructure projects, especially projects in the older parts of the city.

Next, Deputy Public Works Director Sam Davis announced that Water & Wastes Digest (WWD) named Camden’s wastewater treatment plant upgrade as one of its top projects for 2013 in its December issue. WWD made the choice due to Camden being the first site in the world to incorporate a new ultraviolet (UV) disinfection system.

Davis explained that Camden initially chose Wedeco’s TAK55 UV disinfection system. Halfway through the plant’s construction, Wedeco released its new Duron UV system. Davis said the city, its engineering firm and contractor all worked to incorporate the new system into the design.

“The UV design reduces the cost of operating and maintaining the facility,” Davis said. “I really want to compliment our contractors. All of this took place right in the middle of the construction of this new facility. For them to come in and have to redesign to facilitate the new design and for the contractor to work through the cost and get it done without extending the period of construction was really a feat -- it took a lot of work on their part.”

The Duron system not only meets permit requirements, but requires half the UV lamps of the TAK55 system, Davis said, reducing it’s “footprint,” becoming more energy efficient.

“It’s easier to maintain; it’s easier efficiency -- it uses up to 20 percent less energy than the previous system. It’s easier to expand,” he said.

Davis said the plant was originally designed to handle 7.5 million gallons of water per day (mgd), a significant increase over the previous, lagoon-based plant’s 3 mgd capacity and can be expanded to 8 mgd.

In addition, Davis said Wedeco offered an extended three-year warranty on the system, allowing for free upgrades parts replacement. The company is also testing the system to see which parts work best, making changes along the way if necessary. At least part of the system is also self-cleaning.

“We’re very proud to have this latest technology -- this is the first one in the world. There’s not another unit anywhere. Our objective was getting the best technology, the most energy efficient equipment -- which was certainly achieved,” Davis said.

He said the plant is still scheduled to be operational on Feb. 17 and undergo a 30-day “start-up.” The plant will officially open March 17. He also said that the plant is coming in under budget, with the city not having to use most of the money from a contingency fund.

“The SRF loan included a contingency fee of $2.75 million. There was only the electrical cost and gas line installation that was originally designated to come out of it at about $230,000. We’ve not spent any of the remaining money,” Davis said. “The cash allowance that was built into the contract … has covered all the equipment and any changes and hiccups. So, all the small, miscellaneous things were all covered under the cash allowance and we didn’t have to touch any of that contingency money. We’re not looking at using the entire loan.”

Davis thanked everyone involved in the engineering of the plant, along with city building officials John Burns and Albert Blanding.

He said all plant staff are trained as Class A operators -- the highest level at which they can be certified -- and are receiving hands-on training with the equipment as each piece is installed. He said plans are being made for brochures about the plant and an open house, and that the second of the city’s old lagoons should be closed within 180 days of the new plant coming on line.

Davis said the city may be able to realize some savings on that project as well because the city may not actually have to move much of what is currently there. Transporting sludge off site would take both time and money, up to the tune of $2 million. Instead, Davis said a process of dewatering the lagoon instead might only cost $750,000.

In introducing the afternoon’s last speaker, Camden Fire Chief John Bowers, Pearson said Camden was “starting off the year with a lot of good news.” Bowers didn’t stop that trend with news that the city has received a $212,886 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. The grant, provided by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency will help pay for three additional firefighters for a two-year period with no city match required. Bowers complimented Asst. Chief Phil Elliott and Camden Grant Writer Amy Stegner for obtaining the grant.

“Anytime we can use OPM -- other people’s money -- to take care of things locally, we jump at it,” Bowers said.

Bowers said the grant comes at a good time. He said Camden has experienced a 20 percent increase in fire calls during the last 10 years as additional homes have been built and commercial and industrial districts have grown, not in terms of radius but in the number of buildings within the Camden Fire Department (CFD) “footprint.”

Bowers said that growth has come at the same time, however, as the Camden Fire Department (CFD) has experienced steady, high turnover among both its career and volunteer firefighters. Bowers said the CFD has had to deal with an 81 percent turnover in its career firefighting force and a 178 percent volunteer turnover during the past five years. Recently, Bowers said, he lost four firefighters to Columbia at one time -- money tends to be the biggest issue.

Currently, the CFD has 25 members, including Bowers, Elliott, Deputy Chief Eddie Gardner and a secretary. Of the 21 firefighters, 14 are volunteers. They work in three shifts of seven firefighters each. The grant would add one additional firefighter per shift.

“The training is essentially the same,” Bowers said. “A fire doesn’t care if you’re a career firefighter or a volunteer.”

He said he feels firefighting services are beginning to move to a more career-based staff from volunteers as the number of people volunteering to be firefighters decreases nationwide. Bowers said that about 12 years ago, the Kershaw County Fire Service (KCFS) had four career members and 300 volunteers. Today, he said, the KCFS has 24 part-time paid firefighters and only 125 volunteers. In that same period of time, he said, the Lugoff Fire Department moved from four career members and 30 volunteers to 14 career members and only 14 volunteers.

Bowers noted that the last time the number of firefighters increased at the CFD was 27 years ago in 1986.

What would happen after the two-year grant is finished? Bowers said he talked to Pearson about raising the fire service fee charged to non-city of Camden residents in the CFD’s protection zone.

“That fee has not been increased in 16 years. I think it is a very, very modest fee. I think we can raise the revenue we need … I think it would be very modest increases on the folks that pay these fees … in order to sustain these positions beyond the two-year period in time,” Bowers said.

In addition to the SAFER grant, the city also recently received a $59,000 grant which the CFD used to purchase a fire safety demonstration trailer. Following the work session, council moved downstairs to Camden Fire Station No. 1 to see the trailer which is computer operated and can, among other things, simulate a kitchen fire and hot bedroom door. (The C-I will have more on the new trailer in a future edition.)

Council also met in regular session Tuesday evening. During the meeting council voted unanimously on second and final reading to accept an easement on property owned by the Historic Camden Foundation; first reading of ordinance designating a Broad Street property as a Local Historic Landmark; first reading of an ordinance renewing a cable franchise for TruVista; and a resolution supporting the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s 2013-2014 legislative agenda.


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