Beaufort residents will pay an additional 2 percent on their S.C. Electric & Gas bills sometime within the next year.
After much debate during the past few weeks -- and years of behind-the-scene negotiations and legal action -- City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the creation of a special franchise fee district to pay for burying the utility's lines on Boundary Street.
The fee will allow SCE&G to recoup the $2.87 million it estimates burying the lines will cost. The work is part of the city's $26.8 million Boundary Street Project. The city is installing a conduit to hold the lines, but has been in litigation with the utility over moving them.
Costs of burying the lines will be passed along to the 15,000 customers in the city through the additional fee. That fee will be paid for about seven years and will begin once the lines are buried. That work is expected to take six months to a year.
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A previous proposal was for a smaller district of 160 customers around Boundary Street who would have paid an additional 7 percent for 10 years.
Not everyone was happy with Tuesday's vote.
Resident Kathy Lindsay called it a "hidden debt" and pleaded with council to use money from a different fund rather than allowing the citywide district.
"I would just ask you very seriously to consider not doing this to us," she said.
Former Mayor David Taub estimated there will be an extra $4.5 million in the existing TIF II special tax district fund and thinks that money should be used bury the lines. City finance director Kathy Todd said those resources will not be available for several years.
The SCE&G agreement only addresses the utility company's wires, not communication company lines. Hargray and CenturyLink estimate it will cost them $1 million and $600,000, respectively, to relocate their lines.
Representatives from both companies attended Tuesday's meeting and said they're willing to work with the city.
Developer Dick Stewart said the situation the city and companies are in is not unique, has been played out across the country and is largely determined by federal regulatory guidelines.
Those include not being allowed to take down utility poles until all wires are removed, even if SCE&G is no longer using the poles, said Greg Alford, an attorney for SCE&G.
"We can't kick them off," he said of the communications companies.
"We have a problem then, because your pole is in our way," Councilman Mike Sutton said.
"Well, you kick them off (and) I'll cut it down," Alford responded.
Fred Washington, a Beaufort resident and former Beaufort County school board chairman, said a city-wide solution is needed that doesn't burden residents. He wants wires buried and doesn't mind paying for that to happen, but said he is conscious of the cost.
"I don't begrudge the Boundary Street residents getting their needs met, but when are my needs going to get met?" he asked.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.