The Fire Chief Project: Making the Case

A South Carolina utilities manager speaks forcefully for upgrades that will require a rate increase.

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When it’s time to renovate the firehouse or buy a couple of new fire trucks, the fire chief is always there with a ready explanation – to justify the expense and make citizens comfortable about the likely impact on the local budget and taxes.

Water and wastewater utility leaders need to take a cue from the fire chief and make the case for needed upgrades firmly, convincingly and without apology. Tommy Miller, manager of the Department of Public Utilities in Orangeburg, S.C., is doing just that.

In a story in the Times and Democrat newspaper (serving Orangeburg), Miller expounds on why it’s necessary to upgrade the water and wastewater systems. In the news story, Miller is quoted as saying that in its 115-year history, the utility has aimed to offer, “the highest possible service, charging the lowest rates possible, and maintaining a return on investment for the citizens of Orangeburg.”

He says this at a time when the utility is preparing for a water and wastewater rate increase. “If you are running a business, all expenses have to be recovered if you are going to make money or be in the black,” Miller said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility to serve. The lights have to be on.”

Randy Etters, department spokesman, added, ““There is a tremendous amount of expense that goes into making water. We have to use pumping systems to extract it from the river. Those pumping systems have to send it to our treatment plant where it has to go through a multistage process of cleansing.”

The story observes that the utility recently spent $20 million to upgrade its 30 mgd John F. Pearson Water Treatment Plant, which includes an aquifer recovery system for emergency water storage. Miller observed that new state drinking water regulations aimed at ensuring quality water also have added to costs. “These changes regularly require us to alter current treatment and delivery procedures, many times requiring the purchase of additional systems to ensure compliance,” Miller said.

To compensate, according to the news story, the utility has taken cost-saving steps like “tracking vehicle idle times, reducing fuel consumption, replacing leaking pipes and removing inactive meters...The department is also beginning the multi-year process of switching customers over to automatic metering technology” and save meter reading.

On the wastewater side, plans are in place to rehabilitate the 1970s-vintage wastewater treatment plant, again at a cost of $20 million, upgrading the grit removal system, a clarifier and a sludge holding tank, changing to fine-bubble aeration, and modernizing the electric system

Miller spoke proudly of making progress while keeping rates down: “Nobody in South or North Carolina is doing this. I can tell you what we are doing is almost unheard of in this country.”

How well could you make the case for a rate increase? There is something to be learned from the folks at the Orangeburg DPU.


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