Darlington’s water woes: Garland shows how we got here
By Bobby Bryant
On June 25 at the Harmon Baldwin Gym on Sanders Street, Darlington City Council held a public hearing (under COVID-19 safety measures) about the city’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Nearly all of the hearing was about one thing: Council’s plan to reluctantly raise water/sewer rates by $9.55 a month for typical residents, along with a couple of other fees, such as stormwater rates.
During the discussion with about 20 residents spread out around the gym in “socially distanced” folding chairs, City Manager Howard Garland presented what is probably the most blunt, most heartfelt and most comprehensive summary of Darlington’s decades-old water-sewer problems that anyone at the meeting had heard before.
Garland talked a long time, and what follows is nearly a full account of what he said; I had to make some cuts just for space reasons. This account is taken from the city’s official minutes of the public hearing.
Garland told the audience he’d lived in Darlington nearly all his life (except for five years elsewhere). He talked about rusty water growing up, white clothes coming out reddish.
He recalled that in 1972, his grandmother gave him $8.40 and sent him to pay the water bill. He said times are different now: “Darlington is falling apart underneath the ground.” Garland said the water and sewer lines are falling apart at an alarming rate; the past five years of remarkably heavy and frequent rains have shifted the lines.
“The biggest problem that we see currently is the sewer line on East Broad Street,” he said. “That line was built 100 years ago. When it was built, it was a master(piece) of engineering. But it was put 22 feet in(to) the ground. It collapsed the end of February. We found a pipe made of concrete. But we can’t get a camera through it because it has collapsed in three different places between Broad Street and South Ervin Street.
“We are forced to go in and look at an area that should have been replaced 40-50 years ago. We are paying today for previous mayors and council kicking the problem down the road – something that should have been fixed in the ’70s, ’80s or even the ’90s but (hasn’t) been fixed yet. …
“This project on East Broad Street, the initial estimate was $750,000, when we thought we could go in there and do pipe bursting. That’s where you put a balloon in and carries the pipe through and bust the old pipe out of the way. But, with the pipe collapsed, we can’t do that. So we have to go in and dig 20-22 feet in the ground to replace the pipe. It’s going to cost somewhere over $1 million.
“Since the end of February, we’ve had (to) run a bypass generator for the sewage in that area. That generator costs us $60,000 per month. That comes out of our reserve fund. That is four months now – a quarter of a million dollars that we’ve had to eat out of our reserve fund. So this is the problem that we’ve got. We’ve got the crumbling infrastructure.
“We’ve had 20 inches of rain in May. We’ve sewage overflowing on Allen Street, Farm Street, North Main Street. Our ‘vactor truck’ made 140 trips carrying sewage to the treatment plant from the overflow of the sewage problem. …
“(The S.C. Department of Transportation) owns most of the roads in Darlington city and they don’t keep up the ditches and they don’t keep up with storm drains. So that is left up to the city of Darlington to pick up after them. …. We’re sick and tired of it. We wrote a letter to legal counsel for SCDOT in May asking them to come and help us out. Every little town in S.C. is having these problems, but ours are magnified. …We own 43 streets in Darlington city, partially or wholly. Everything else, like Russell Street with all the holes in it, that’s SCDOT. So we’re behind the eight-ball because we’ve got to replace our aging water and sewer infrastructure. …
“Folks, growing up, do you ever remember having this much rain in a five-year period? … We get a 100-year flood every two months now. We get a hurricane every year. With the type of soil we have and the coastal interior plains of S.C., our water lines are falling apart. Our sewer lines are falling apart. Our stormwater infrastructure in the west end of Darlington was scheduled to cost $1.5 million. But when we got looking at, it cost $2.7 million.
“And guess what, the town’s stormwater fund is right now bankrupt because we did one project to help 10 percent of town. So we’ve got to raise our stormwater fees because we can’t afford to pay our stormwater bond. We only collect $144,000 in stormwater fees a year. The bond payment by itself is $180,000. We can’t pay the bill unless we raise the stormwater fee. We can’t pay our bills and fix these lines if we don’t raise our water/sewer fees.” …
“The cost of everything is going up, folks. I know it’s a hit, but we’re left to clean up the mess that previous mayors, councils and managers did not fix. If we don’t fix it now, we’re going to be Timmonsville or Lamar in five years.” (Nothing against those towns, Garland said, but he pointed out that Timmonsville “had to give their water system away to the city of Florence,” and Lamar is “under so many consent orders from DHEC” because of water-sewer issues.)
“ … Folks, if we don’t raise these rates now, guess what, six months from now, when we go bankrupt with our water-sewer department, we’re going to be forced to sell our water-sewer system to someone else. And guess what? Then you won’t have a say whether they raise your water-sewer rates. …
“I’ve got my serious hat on right now. This is my hometown, but we’ve got to do this, folks. We’re falling apart. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m putting my job on the line, just like I did five years ago when I promised those people on Chalmers Street that we would fix their water line and stormwater issues and we did.”
(Applause from some people at the hearing.)
“If we don’t do this now, we are going to die as a town, people,” Garland said. “We are going to die. We gotta do this. Thank you.”
The following week, City Council approved the rate increases.