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Bethune looking at 18 percent water rate hike in July
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The town of Bethune will raise its water rates by 18 percent in July.

Bethune Town Council held a public meeting Thursday about a proposed upgrade to the town’s aging and deteriorating water system during which council members discussed the plan for completing the project. The meeting was the final step in the process for applying for a Rural Development Authority (RDA) grant to help pay for the upgrade.

The cost of the project, to include new transmission lines, hydrants, and meters throughout the town, is coming in at a little more than $2.8 million. While council is working on grants to help fund the project, the town will have to incur some debt -- for the first time in its history -- to undertake the project. This means the town will have to increase water rates in order to show that it can pay the interest on that debt, Councilman Don Witham told a group of citizens attending the meeting.

Of the $2.8 million, the town’s engineering firm will secure one grant in the amount of $350,000, leaving the town to find the remaining approximately $2.458 million. The town is in the process of securing a RDA grant for $1.125 million and a loan from the State Revolving Fund (SRF) for $1.375 million. The town must pay back the SRF loan over 40 years at 2.56 percent interest -- $4,538 per month.

Assuming the town continues to serve 260 customers, the loan payment works out to an extra $17.45 per customer per month, Witham said.

“As of July 1 our water rates will go up -- that’s the plan and what we have to do,” Witham said. “The goal is to ensure that the rates take in sufficient revenue make the payment on that Revolving Fund loan.”

The current system, which serves 214 residential customers and 50 commercial customers, was installed in 1935. It has a 75,000 gallon elevated water tank. While some of the pipe materials have been replaced over the years with PVC, most of it is galvanized iron; it also has lead joints. Also, meters are inaccurate and beyond useful life. 

According to Witham, the system is fraught with operational and structural issues, including inaccurate water meters, malfunctioning fire hydrants, lead joints and continuous leaks -- in fact, a recent leak along U.S. 1 cost around $10,000 to repair.

Even though the water being produced at the treatment plant is very good, falling well within S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control DHEC standards, once it leaves the plant and goes through the old system, it picks up contaminants along the way, Mayor Charles McCoy said.

“We have no control over those pipes in the ground -- people call with complaints about discolored water, but we can’t do anything about it,” McCoy said. “Once we get the new system, though, all those issues will be gone.”

The town of Bethune currently charges $26.12 per 6,000 gallons for water. The plan calls for three rate increases during the next three years, with 18 percent increases in 2016 and 2017 and a 19 percent increase in 2018.  Those increases will reflect rates of $30.82, $36.77, and $43.75 per 6,000 gallons respectively.

In addition, in order to secure grant and loan funding, council will have to pass an ordinance requiring all who live in the town limits to tap into the new system when it becomes available, Witham said. 

“You can keep your well if you have one, but you will still have to pay at least the minimum,” he said.

Despite the increases, the town’s rates will remain competitive with other towns and systems of similar size.  For example, the town of Bishopville, which has a population of 3,520, charges $16.42 per 6,000 gallons of water, but adds an $18.65 charge for sewer services, bringing the total charge to $35.07. The town of Kershaw’s total water/sewer charge per 6,000 gallons is $74.48. 

Like Bethune, the town of McBee -- the nearest municipality, about 7 miles away in Chesterfield County -- does not have a sewer service charge. Its total charge per 6,000 gallons of water is $28.42

Interestingly enough, the town of Richburg,  with a population 360 -- 20 fewer than Bethune -- charges $98.54 cents per 6,000 gallons for water and sewer; its water rate alone is $52.27.

Other comparable towns include:

• Pinewood, population 405, $52.50 per  6,000 gallons(water and sewer)

• Little Mountain, population 290, $55.40 per 6,000 gallons (water)

• Donalds, population 355, $41.65 per 6,000 gallons (water)

• Heath Springs, population 735, $75.00 per 6,000 gallons (water and sewer)

• Lynchburg, population 440, $61.08 per 6,000 gallons (water and sewer)

• Cassatt Water, 25.98 per 6,000 gallons (water)

• Lancaster County, 81.34 per 6,00 gallons (water and sewer)

Those who attended the meeting expressed their support for the project, noting that the proposed increases appear to be a good investment in the town’s future.

In other business, Police Chief Joey Cobb gave a brief update into ongoing investigations into area break-ins. Cobb said three Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office investigators are assigned to Bethune and are helping Cobb run down many leads and gather information. In addition, the town recently hired a part-time officer, Almus Rose, who has been putting in many hours. Cobb also said he will be meeting with a potential reserve officer who has expressed interest in working for the town.

Cobb said they have not arrested anyone yet, but are getting closer to doing so. He urged citizens to continue to be vigilant and to report any information, no matter how seemingly insignificant.