Local legislators obtained a temporary restraining order against Avondale Mills Thursday preventing the company from collecting payment from, cutting service to or imposing any fines on the customers of its water and sewer system.
The restraining order follows in the wake of a decision by the S.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) to reinstate water and sewer bill rates to Graniteville and Vaucluse customers who were surprised to find in July that their rates had risen drastically, some as much as 700 percent.
The bills, with rates topping out above $700 for some, would have been due Saturday.
“We were forced to come to court today,” said Sen. Shane Massey, who has been working with Rep. Roland Smith and Rep. Tom Young on the issue from its outset. The three held a press conference on the courthouse steps Thursday after receiving the order from Judge Michael Baxley. “These folks did not know their bills were going up,” Massey added.
Each man agreed that has been the primary issue all along – that the residents of Graniteville and Vaucluse were not notified their water and sewer rates had gone up until they received their bills on July 31.
Young said according to state law, there should have been a notice in the paper before the bills were mailed.
There never was, a fact he said was verified by checking Aiken Standard records.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Graniteville resident Wayne Johnson of his bill. It skyrocketed from an average of $13 a month to $135. “I am on a fixed income. Things are tough. I could have paid it, but not every month of the year.”
Last week, the PSC suspended the rates as well as any penalties or cutoffs until it could take further action, admitting they did not realize the effect the price increase would have on residents of the impoverished former mill town.
But, Commissioners, Avondale Mills representatives and Massey, Young and Smith were unable to come to an agreement during a meeting Wednesday in Columbia, and the PSC said it had no choice but to reinstate the rates.
On Thursday, Young called Avondale Mills’ actions “unconscionable” and said that the legal rights of the citizens of Graniteville and Vaucluse impacted by the rate increase are threatened with “irreparable harm.”
Young added that an attorney with Avondale was sent the temporary restraining order documents Thursday.
The response, Young said, was that the company would “get back with us.”
A hearing on the merits of the temporary restraining order will be held on Aug. 25 and the lawmakers believe no water or sewer bill will be due before that date. A hearing on the fairness of the rate increase will be held Oct. 6 in Columbia.
System customers hope that the nearby Valley Public Service Authority will ultimately take over the system.
Valley Public Service Authority has said it will assume ownership as long as there is funding in place to repair the 80- to 100-year-old system. It is estimated the system would need $12 million to $15 million in upgrades.
“That system is antiquated,” Massey said. “There should be no more Band-Aids; we need to replace it.”
Smith said he was confident the water and sewer rates would be reasonable when a new owner, like the Valley Public Service Authority, took over the system.