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041418 PSC hearing

Northwood Estates resident Barbara Williams testifies before the South Carolina Public Service commission at Thursday night's hearing at Orangeburg City Hall.

Residents of an Orangeburg neighborhood testified their sewer rates are already too high during a public hearing on a proposed rate increase by the private utility that provides them with sewer lines.

The South Carolina Public Service Commission held the heading Thursday evening at Orangeburg City Hall, where residents of Northwood Estates opposed a requested rate increase by Synergy Utility, formerly Midlands Utility.

Andrew Bateman, attorney for the Office of Regulatory Staff, said the commissioners can ask questions but are not allowed to answer questions about the case.

Resident Barbara Williams said, “We’ve been trying to work with Midlands, aka Synergy, for the last 15 to 20 years about the sewer problem and high costs we are paying.”

She said the residents get three separate charges on their bill: a sewer service charge, a sublet treatment charge and another service fee.

The septic system in Northwood Estates is handled by Synergy, along with the Orangeburg’s Department of Public Utilities, with DPU providing water treatment. DPU is owned by the City of Orangeburg.

Williams said residents have previously gone before city and county councils, saying they need relief from their high sewer bills, which include charges from the private company and DPU. They’ve also met with Synergy, PSC and ORS and the local legislative delegation, she said.

She said residents have told their stories, not only of high bills but of sewer problems, “and still nothing is being done.”

“They come to you seeking rate increases. How can you justifiably grant them a rate increase when they allow the system to continue to be broken?” Williams said.

She said Synergy says they abide by PSC rules.

“How is it they neglect to repair a broken system, passing again the cost on to us?” Williams said.

The rate increase isn’t the real problem, she said.

“But why should we pay high rates when nothing is being done about repairs?” Williams said. “With a rate increase, we’re looking at the possibility of $100 soon.”

Resident Johnny Murdaugh said he asked that the commission deny Synergy’s request.

“I’ve lived in this location for five years. When I started, the price per month was about $23. Currently, now (it is) about $90,” he said.

“So if you do the math, that comes up to about a 350-percent increase over a five-year period,” he said.

Resident Gwen Gillis said she has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and when she first arrived, her sewage bill was about $27. Over the years, that has increased, resulting in a February bill of about $89, she said. The charges from DPU have increased as well, Gillis said.

“I don’t think Synergy is entitled to another increase,” she said.

“I feel as if Synergy has a responsibility to us to fix the damage that’s been going on over a decade,” Gillis said.

Resident Angela Brown said she’s only lived in the neighborhood for a few months but has experienced high sewer bills. And even during times when she’s been out of the country and not using water or sewer, her bill remains high, she said.

About the increase, Synergy attorney Charles Cook said, “This is a wholesale collection. And the PSC has no authority over DPU ... so they’re a combination.”

The last time Synergy had a rate increase was 2005, he said.

“It’s a difficult thing because the treatment is done by Orangeburg. And the council for Orangeburg raises the rates. (Synergy’s) rates are for collection and keeping the line up,” Cook said.

“It sounds awful, but it’s because of that combination,” he said.

Another hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, April 19, in the commission’s chambers in Columbia. Those who testified at the Orangeburg hearing will not be allowed to speak at the second hearing, commission Chairman Swain Whitfield said.

Contact the writer: chuff@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5543.

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