The long debate over the consolidation of Greenville County’s sewage collectors has just reached a benchmark moment.
Greenville County Council voted to approve an ordinance that would bring the county’s eight independent sewage collection agencies — otherwise known as special purpose districts, or SPDs — together under one district, MetroConnects, by July 1, 2021.
The plan has been met with broad support among the development community, the industrial community and the environmental community, but a recent lawsuit filed in tandem by three SPDs argues the move is an unlawful power grab by county officials.
County Council approved the ordinance by a vote of 8 to 4, with council members Willis Meadows, Sid Cates and Michael Barnes as the only holdout no votes.
Councilman Meadows in particular expressed his opposition, pushing for council to hold the final vote on the ordinance until more questions can be answered about its ultimate impact on county residents.
“We’ve had four weeks to look at 53 pages, and there are a lot of questions that have been asked that haven’t been answered,” Meadows said. “I don’t see anything wrong with asking to hold this until we get some answers so we have a little more clarity. But we don’t have any clarity here.”
County Council Chairman Butch Kirven pushed back against Meadows, saying, “You may not have clarity, but I think others have clarity.”
“Then answer my questions, Mr. Chairman,” Meadows said. “I sent you 24 questions. If you have clarity, will you answer them?”
“I have clarity for myself, and I know how I’ll vote,” Kirven said.
“Well, you knew that before,” Meadows said. “I move we hold this until we get the answers, listen to both sides instead of listening to just one side.”
The move to hold the ordinance was rejected by council, before the final vote ultimately approved the ordinance.
With litigation still pending, however, it remains to be seen if consolidation will proceed on a smooth course without any future setbacks.
Filed in tandem by the Parker, Marietta, Taylors and Gantt special purpose districts, the lawsuit argues the county would be usurping the statutory authority of the districts, specifically when it comes to the county’s proposed intent to dissolve the special purpose districts and transfer their assets without a meeting of the General Assembly or a referendum.
The county has “no authority to take this action,” the lawsuit states.
What’s more, the lawsuit claims that County Council’s public meetings on the matter, which are held via Zoom and are therefore inaccessible to those without ready access to a computer and broadband connection, do not meet the standard required by state law.
“Even if [the county and County Council] had the authority to dissolve the Special Purpose Districts, they are required by statute to hold a public hearing that provides a full opportunity for opponents to participate and be heard,” the lawsuit argues.
In a statement released before the latest County Council meeting, the advocacy group Save Greenville’s Sewers argued the same point. The group claimed Greenville County Council members “and their team of lobbyists and special interest advocates” did not approach the six municipalities of Greenville or attempt any discussion with the SPDs affected while pushing for this “takeover,” according to the statement.
“Instead, they chose to work behind closed doors for months at a time, hold ‘public’ meetings where only certain groups were allowed to speak, and routinely have failed to return phone calls, emails and our requests for answers,” the statement argues.
The effort from the four special purpose districts to stall the final vote received a major setback on Dec. 8, however, when three special purpose districts — Berea, Wade Hampton and Marietta — agreed to turn over sewer-collection serves to MetroConnects even before the final vote for consolidation took place. The districts did so in exchange for the assurance that they would be able to continue operating independent fire services. Those fire service areas were confirmed at the latest council meeting.
Marietta, which was among the SPDs that filed the lawsuit, is now backing down from its involvement in any further litigation.
In a Committee of the Whole meeting before the final vote on Tuesday, Councilman Sid Cates questioned the move to convince the SPDs to willfully hand over their sewer collection in exchange for continued fire services
“Basically they were told if they didn’t transfer the assets over that they would, in essence, loose their fire service area, is that correct?” Cates said. “So they were under the gun to do that.”
It remains to be seen if the holdout SPDs will have their fire service relinquished for not agreeing to the preliminary dissolution of their sewage collection.