Pioneer renews rate talks with cities
By Justin Lee Campbell
SENECA — Negotiations over water rates between the Pioneer Rural Water District and the cities of Seneca and Westminster were “very healthy,” Oconee County councilman Julian Davis said.
Seneca utilities director Bob Faires, Westminster Mayor Brian Ramey and Pioneer general manager Terry Pruitt met on Wednesday to hash out new rates in light of Pioneer’s proposed $19 million water treatment plant. Davis, who attended the meeting, told The Journal that he was “very proud” of their efforts.
“One of the things I’ve harped on is working together to develop solutions rather than creating problems, and to me that’s what I saw today,” said Davis, who asked for a 90-day halt to the plant project March 7 at a Pioneer board meeting. “I just wish it occurred a few years ago so we didn’t have to get to this point.”
As previously reported, Pioneer is one of the largest water customers for Westminster and the largest customer of all for Seneca. Pioneer buys about 60 percent of its water from Seneca and 40 percent from Westminster.
But the Pioneer board adopted a resolution in January authorizing the construction of a treatment plant in anticipation of a $19.4 million waterworks revenue bond. The decision set off alarm bells for Ramey and his city administrator, Chris Carter, who said Westminster billed Pioneer $523,674 for 220,494,019 gallons of water in 2016.
Ramey told The Journal after the meeting that he “feels good about where we stand.”
“We’re hoping that we’ve reached the number that everybody can live with,” Ramey said, referring to new water rates with Pioneer. “I think it’s a positive step forward. We got a lot of things aired out, and a lot of misunderstandings have been cleared.”
The Journal reported on Wednesday that Oconee County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to explore “all means” to halt the plant project. Davis said the lack of “a nailed-down number (for water rates)” was “of grave concern” to him.
Council passed a motion to withhold the project’s building permit provided that step could be taken legally.
Davis told The Journal after negotiations on Wednesday that stopping the project “is up to the (Pioneer) board of directors.” Davis said Pruitt planned to hold a special called meeting open to the public to discuss the project’s future.
“Westminster did make an offer for Pioneer … and the board to consider,” said Davis, a Pioneer customer who represents the areas of Westminster and Oakway in the water district. “Both the Pioneer board and city council of Westminster would have to agree to (the rates). … Those two pieces of the puzzle have to be put together.”
Davis added that Ramey also plans to hold a special-called meeting with Westminster City Council to discuss the proposed rates. Davis said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose specific numbers and that Seneca’s water rates weren’t an issue based on Pruitt’s figures.
Faires was in agreement with Davis that the meeting on Wednesday was healthy. Faires told The Journal there was “very good dialogue” with Pioneer.
“Everybody was open, so at least there’s good communication,” said Faires, who asked Pioneer to stop construction on the plant after Davis pushed for the 90-day halt. “I’m not sure about the end result … but the meeting helped with communications.”
Faires expressed concern over what he saw as a breakdown in communication after negotiations with Pioneer in 2011 produced four drafts of a contract. Faires told the Pioneer board that he put in the contract a defined rate increase of 1 percent annually.
“Since 2011, that contract has been on your desk,” Faires told Pruitt, who estimated that a 90-day halt to the project would cost just less than $3 million.
Davis said on Wednesday that Pruitt “was very receptive to today’s meeting.”
Attempts to reach Pruitt for comment were unsuccessful.
Davis told The Journal that the cost of halting the project is “a kink” in the process right now. How Pioneer would absorb what Pruitt claimed is $3 million to stop the project is uncertain.
“I hate they’ve been moving dirt,” Davis said.
But Davis is optimistic regardless of construction.
“I felt like Pioneer was trying to do what’s best for their customers, and then negotiations just stopped,” Davis said. “I’m glad now that Westminster came to the table. That’s what’s going to change Oconee County: creating solutions and not problems.”
As for Westminster, Ramey said the city did its part on Wednesday: “Now the ball’s in Pioneer’s court.”
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