on January 10, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Legal footnote seen as loophole to funding sewer expansion

SENECA — It’s only a footnote in a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling, but that may be enough to help Oconee County expand and fund sewer infrastructure to areas lacking the essential service without having to go through yet another referendum.

The high court’s footnote may be the legal peg county officials need to hang their hopes of moving forward in funding future sewer projects.

Sewer Commission legal adviser Lowell Ross thinks the footnote — which appears at the end of the Susie Cornelius v. Oconee County ruling last summer — is clear as day. Based on its wording, Ross said it gives the county and cities the green light to enter into a joint agreement on expanding and paying for sewer service.

Acting on Ross’ counsel, the Sewer Commission on Monday authorized its members to go back to their respective cities to discuss the concept and review the feasibility of such a joint venture with the county. Seneca was scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday night.

The move is part of an effort over the past month to find a way out of a financing straightjacket placed on the county by Cornelius, a Walhalla resident who successfully stopped county taxpayers’ money from being used to construct a wastewater treatment facility to serve a proposed industrial park in Fair Play.

Cornelius has maintained throughout that a 1976 referendum approved by Oconee County voters does not make provision for the use of tax money to expand sewer services. Cornelius’ contention was upheld by the state Supreme Court in July.

Nonetheless, the footnote in question may give the county a loophole. It reads: “Nothing in the Referendum or the circuit court, however, limits county’s authority to contract with other public or private entities to provide sewer services.”

Cornelius said Tuesday that it would be legal for the county to contract with the cities, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Her concern, however, is the ultimate makeup of the Sewer Commission once a joint agreement between the county and cities is reached.

“The Sewer Commission is made up mostly of members representing the cities,” she said. “There are about 20,000 people in the cities and 50,000 in the rest of the county. I want the rural population to be adequately represented.”

Cornelius added that she wants to wait until details are available of what the cities and county want to accomplish.

Ross said that in essence, cities now providing sewer services — Seneca, Walhalla, Westminster and West Union — could enter into an agreement with the county to expand services with county funding.

Although Sewer Commission members agreed to pursue the matter with their respective city governments, some expressed concerns over possible repercussions.

“Is this going to bring another Cornelius lawsuit?” asked Seneca City Administrator Greg Dietterick. “Would this drag the cities into the suit?”

Sewer Commissioner Ron Knoerr added that getting an opinion from the state’s Attorney General could save all parties potential grief.

Ross said he would ask for an opinion from the attorney general.

Bob Winchester, Sewer Commission General Superintendent, also questioned how the Commission’s financial assets and obligations would be transferred once a joint agreement is reached. Winchester said that being able to incur debt is a big issue.

Ross made it clear that the process is a starting point and that many details would have to be ironed out.

“People are going to need sewer service,” Ross said. “We’re talking about the county putting money up.”