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Years later PMPA lawsuit continues

Laurens County, South Carolina – Hot summer days can be stressful enough for folks simply trying to stay cool, but due to a long-standing lawsuit between member utilities of the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency, summer stress includes knowledge that a controversial and long-standing lawsuit remains unresolved.

The lawsuit pits the plaintiffs: Laurens Commission of Public Works, Clinton Utility Department and four other cities or municipal utilities, Newberry, Union, Gaffney and Easley, against the defendants: Rock Hill and Greer. Two other PMPA member cities, Abbeville and Westminster, are not engaged in the lawsuit.

Joel Ledbetter

The issues are very complex, said Joel Ledbetter, the newly-named PMPA General Manager, but it comes down to a difference of opinion on how to interpret a portion of the PMPA’s Supplemental Power Sales Agreement.

It’s been the cause of ongoing strain as board members sit across the table from each other at monthly PMPA meetings and workshops. And it’s been going for years now.

In its July 31, 2019, issue, The Laurens County Advertiser reported that the PMPA Board of Directors was holding a workshop in which alternate rate structures had been presented by Rock Hill and Greer. Nothing changed, as the larger cities didn’t have quite enough votes for their plans to carry.

“Over the years there have been all kinds of suggestions to try and resolve this,” said Laurens CPW General Manager John Young. “We were constantly trying to come up with a plan that would please everyone. Rock Hill and Greer have voted to approve the rates just like everyone else. But they aren’t happy.”

For a time several years ago it was even more stressful locally because the City of Clinton had aligned with Rock Hill and Greer.

That changed after Clinton City Manager Tom Brooks arrived.

“It’s really a difference in the contract interpretation,” Brooks said. “I had been unfamiliar with PMPA when I arrived and had to learn how the utility served the member cities. When we saw exactly what Rock Hill and Greer were asking, we decided we were more aligned with the plaintiffs and that’s when we went over to that side with Laurens and the others.”

On March 10, 2023, the six plaintiff cities filed a motion, found online, with the Court of Common Pleas in Greenville County, asking that the judge deny a summary judgement against the plaintiffs which had been requested by the defendants. In early July the plaintiffs learned that the judge had in fact denied the summary judgement. That was announced at July meetings of Clinton City Council and the Laurens Commission of Public Works.

The good news for the plaintiff member cities is that the judge did not go along with the request by Rock Hill and Greer to force the other PMPA cities to agree with their interpretation of the contract, nor did he agree to demand the smaller cities and PMPA pay large cash refunds to the larger cities. The bad news, however, is the legal battles continue, Ledbetter said, and will likely go to a jury or bench trial, costing each city and the PMPA even more in legal fees.

“It’s a dispute about the allocation of the fixed cost of Catawba,” Ledbetter said, referring to the portion of the Catawba Nuclear Power Plant purchased in the early 1980s by PMPA.

Until the initial debt is completely paid off in 2035, a debt share cost is still included with each power purchase by every PMPA city. Rock Hill and Greer need more electricity than the other cities, and they don’t like having to cover those costs each time they purchase additional power from their provider.

PMPA was created in 1979 as a Joint Action Agency, a common system at the time as it enabled small cities to band together for borrowing money. Inflation was staggering at the time, textile and other mills in almost every Upstate city were requiring large amounts of electricity and there was valid concern that small cities would be left without the power they needed.

Leaders of the 10 municipal utilities projected how much power they’d likely need over the next 40 years and signed off on their percentage shares.

However, almost all the cities saw changes, increases or decreases, in their sizes and power needs throughout the intervening years.

“On hot days like this, none of us have excess power and we have to buy it from Santee Cooper,” Young said.  “In other parts of the year, like December and January and February, we never max out. But Rock Hill and Greer still need more.”

This story ran on Page 1 of the Wednesday, Aug. 2 issue of The Laurens County Advertiser. 

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