Companies, Beaufort officials disagree over paying for burying wires

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMay 31, 2014 

Two communications companies want the city of Beaufort to pay for burying wires along Boundary Street, but city officials are refusing.

CenturyLink officials estimate it will cost $600,000 to move its wires, and Hargray officials estimate the bill for putting their lines underground will be $1 million.

Meanwhile, Beaufort officials and SCE&G are working out an agreement -- which the City Council is expected to vote on Tuesday -- to come up with $2.87 million for burying the power company's lines on Boundary Street.

The tentative agreement calls for the costs of burying SCE&G's lines to be passed along to the 15,000 customers in the city by creating a special franchise fee district. Customers would be charged an additional 2 percent on their power bills for about seven years.

A previous proposal was for a smaller district of 160 customers around Boundary Street to pay an additional 7 percent for 10 years.

Burying utility lines is part of a $26.8 million project to narrow lanes, insert landscaped medians, and add sidewalks and bike paths on Boundary Street. The city is paying about $3.5 million to install an underground conduit to hold the utility lines.

CITY SAYS IT WON'T PAY

City attorney Bill Harvey said that under the agreement, SCE&G would work with the city to get communications companies currently renting space on SCE&G utility poles to move their lines underground. But that doesn't include helping to shoulder the costs.

City manager Scott Dadson said all the utilities have been "on notice" since April 2013.

"They were advised they must move at no cost to the city or the project," Dadson said via email. "They have no prior rights and have proven none."

But officials from both CenturyLink and Hargray say that's unfair.

"The proposed ordinance would cause significant costs without proportionate benefits," CenturyLink said in a statement. "We respectfully request the ordinance be modified to exclude CenturyLink or to confirm that the required relocation costs will be paid for by the city."

Chris McCorkendale, vice president of operations and strategic sales for Hargray, said customers tend to bear the brunt of such projects through service interruptions and higher rates.

"On a project like Boundary Street, which is intended to beautify the community, our view is that the sponsoring municipality should bear all or some portion of these costs or take responsible steps to ease the financial burden," he said.

NEXT STEPS

Both CenturyLink and Hargray officials said they want to work with city officials to come up with a solution.

The SCE&G agreement needs to be in place by June 10, Dadson said last week. The final City Council vote on the SCE&G fee district will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 1911 Boundary St.

Within three months of SCE&G installing wires underground into the city-provided conduit, the utility must remove its overhead lines. And its poles must come down after all the wires are underground, or when SCE&G determines it is able to do so, according to the agreement.

SCE&G is not financially responsible for the communication companies removing their wires from its poles, nor is it responsible for any construction delays caused by the communication companies' failure to remove their lines, according to the agreement.

Preliminary plans call for construction to begin at the end of July and take about 18 months.

Related content:

Beaufort City Council considers citywide special fee district for SCE&G, May28, 2014

Beaufort seeks options to pay for underground utilities on Boundary Street, May 22, 2014

SCE&G customers on Boundary Street could see 7 percent increase on bills, May 20, 2014

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