By Ashleigh Dye
In October 2021, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) paid $920,000 to settle a four-year-old lawsuit filed against the small town of Ridgeland after it threatened to cut off water and sewer service over unpaid bills owed by DOC’s prison there, Ridgeland Correctional Institution (RCI).
The massive bill arrived when DOC’s sixteen-year-old agreement for water and sewer services expired with the town in 2017. Ridgeland then raised the water rate 400% and sewer services 300% for RCI, also levying a one-time, new-user impact fee of $1.4 million to go toward a $10-million new wastewater treatment plant for the town. The town justified the increased rates and the fee by claiming RCI had gone over the maximum water usage allowed under its old contract.
Current state law allows government-owned water systems to determine what their rates will be with no stipulations or restrictions. This lack of checks and balances, according to DOC Director Bryan Stirling, could mean that other towns might hit prisons with similarly legal-but-high rate hikes. No other users were charged the rate hike and impact fee.
When Stirling protested the rates and fee were exorbitant, he had to sue the town in 2018 to keep it from shutting off water and sewer service to some 1,000 prisoners at RCI. The settlement to end the suit was approved by the state Fiscal Accountability Authority in December. Ridgeland administrator Dennis Averkin reported that DOC will pay $312,682 for past-due bills and $605,000 in water and sewer capacity the prison used over its contractual peak capacity.
In a December 2021 Opinion Piece, the Editorial Board of the Charleston Post and Courier admitted the town had DOC over a barrel, since “…it’s unlikely that the Legislature would provide funding [to DOC] to pick up and move [its prison] away just because the utility costs are too high.” But it urged state lawmakers “to explore whether other state agencies have had similar problems and to consider creating a regulatory route for appeals when a municipal utility singles out a captive customer for special treatment – good or bad.”
Sources: Bluffton Today, Post and Courier, SC Lawyers Weekly, U.S. News
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