Sewer South— The bids for the Sewer South project which will extend sewer lines from Exit 1 & 2 along I-85 came in significantly higher than expected. The original expected cost was $5.2 million in 2018 when the US Department of Commerce awarded the project a $3.7 million grant and the SC Rural Infrastructure Authority added another $977K.
Cost was expected to rise significantly with the current rate of inflation and a more recent engineering estimate had estimated the cost of the project near $8 million.
I attended the project’s pre-bid meeting in Fair Play in which 5 firms showed interest in bidding the project. However, only 2 firms submitted bids and unfortunately the lowest bidder came in at $12.3 million.
The current rate of inflation and the injection (printing) of money surely had a major impact on the bids being over budget. Also, many firms, with the influx of federal cash, have much more work than they can handle. This may have led to the two bidders throwing out outrageous numbers due to just not caring whether they landed the bid or not. Anyone involved in the residential or commercial construction industry would be familiar with this scenario over the past several months. Either way, the slow development of this project has led to the dramatic increase in cost.
The project has encountered several roadblocks along the way, but I’m of the belief that much of the foot dragging has been intentional. If you follow county politics, you know that sewer service in this county is a political quagmire. Sewer equals development, and whoever controls where the sewer system goes controls the development. So, in a nutshell, whoever controls sewer is the most powerful entity in the county.
The “turf war” between the cities that make up the OJRSA and their struggle for power and control has come at the detriment of the citizens of Oconee County.
There are some who would like for our county to become a boutique, bedroom, and retirement community. However, what we need is a diverse economy and well paying jobs, or else our children and grandchildren will not be able to afford to remain in Oconee County.
In order to diversify our economy, we must build out our infrastructure. Sewer is therefore a major piece of it.
The county must not put all of our eggs in one basket and we must be willing to sever some longstanding political relationships. I’m of the belief that the county needs to begin to separate ourselves from the toxic OJRSA relationship. I recently had a commercial developer tell me that his firm was hesitant to invest in Oconee County due to the dysfunction of the OJRSA and the member cities (they all recently sued each other).
A potential opportunity for sewer expansion, and an opportunity to cut the stranglehold the OJRSA has on this county recently presented itself. Last spring, Anderson County approached Oconee County on the possibility of a partnership between the two counties to construct a new joint sewer plant near I-85.
Preliminary talks had Anderson County covering 60% of the cost and Oconee covering 40%. Additionally there was a possibility to receive $10 million (20% of the projects cost) of ARPA money that the state had earmarked for sewer projects. In order to have an opportunity to receive the ARPA money, the counties needed to agree to a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) prior to September 1st, 2022. This MOU in no way would have finalized the deal or commit the county to the project. Rather, it was a formal agreement between the counties to begin negotiations on the project.
Unfortunately, the council majority, led by District 4’s Julian Davis, would not even entertain talks between the counties. This resulted in the door closing on the $10 million ARPA money.
Here’s Mr. Davis’s opinion at the time as reported in an Aug 3rd Journal article:
“Oconee County Councilman Julian Davis said he appreciated the meeting, but doesn’t think the idea is in “the best interest of Oconee County,” adding sewer lines are set to go in the ground for the Sewer South 2 project in the next six months.
“I’m never against looking at other opportunities, but we’re so close to getting Sewer South going, why would you involve another party and start it all over?” he asked. “I’m not a big fan of another county control, or being a part of sewer in Oconee County. I think Oconee County is strong enough and smart enough to handle our own issues."”
Some 4 short months later Mr. Davis, in a December 20 Journal article, withdrew his support for sewer south due to cost. While I agree the $12.3 million bid is way too expensive, it sure would’ve been nice to have had more options, like a partnership with a neighboring county to reduce cost, at this point.
One benefit of the new sewer plant that District 5’s Glenn Hart and myself were promoting was that the majority of the waste would flow down hill whereas 2/3rds of the designed sewer south project is pumped force mains up to the Golden Corner Commerce Park’s pumping station. Not only is it expensive to pump the effluent uphill, but it’s also difficult and very expensive for new customers to tap into a forced main. A fact Mr. Davis now admits in the December 20 article “He (Davis) added the system, as designed, doesn’t allow for users to tap into the expanded sewer line without paying an “astronomical fee.”” But Mr. Davis and the council majority were not willing to entertain a mostly gravity-fed system.
Despite the misinformation spin Mr. Davis tries to put on it, the Coneross Waste Treatment Plant has already permitted its regulatory limit for heavy metal ions to existing industries within the county. If a new heavy industry has heavy metal ions in their effluent, then they need not apply to Oconee county as it currently stands with the Coneross Waste Treatment Plant being the only sewer plant in the county.
Mr. Davis’s rejection of entertaining negotiations with Anderson County is in direct conflict with the county’s comprehensive plan, a plan Mr. Davis loves to tout when he’s pushing for $30 million bicycle paths (SEE HERE).
The county’s comprehensive plan strategy specifically states:
Strategy 188.8.131.52. Expand sewer service throughout areas identified by the Land Use Element as potential areas of development, while implementing appropriate measures to avoid negative impacts on sensitive areas.
Strategy 184.108.40.206. Work with neighboring jurisdictions when possible to establish regional efforts to expand sewer service into prime commercial and industrial locations
Strategy 220.127.116.11. Establish partnerships with regional, state, and federal agencies to seek and secure funding for wastewater treatment facility upgrade and expansion needs.
Strategy 18.104.22.168. Continue to develop the I-85 industrial corridor with associated infrastructure to support fully utilized industrial parks.
You can view a compiled list of Comprehensive Plan Strategies HERE.
If we’re going to diversify our economy and provide good paying jobs and suitable living conditions for future generations, then the special interest grip on this county need to be released and our county’s elected ‘representatives’ must put away the kind of back room, good ‘ole boy special interest politics that have gripped our county for years.