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Folly Beach voters may be faced with a referendum question in the spring on whether to establish a water utility in the small, barrier-island city. File/Brad Nettles/Staff 

Come spring, Folly Beach voters may be faced with a referendum on whether to establish a water utility in the small, barrier-island city. 

That will likely come as a surprise because Folly already has a water utility that's operated for decades. It buys drinking water wholesale from Charleston Water System and resells it to residents. 

Mayor Tim Goodwin said the vote isn't a rate hike in disguise. It's an issue of missing paperwork discovered as the city was exploring whether to issue a new bond to replace waterlines.

During that process, bond attorneys couldn't find evidence that voters agreed to a utility when Folly Beach became a city in 1973. The evidence could be a certified vote count or a vote by City Council acknowledging the result of a public vote.  

Now, council will decide Tuesday night whether to stage an entirely new vote.

The referendum is simply to make sure the correct documents are in hand, and if passed, "it won't change anything for the (water) customers," Goodwin said. 

Folly is looking at replacing 16,000 feet of drinking water lines, along with other improvements, and could eventually seek a bond between $5 million and $10 million.

Gary Pope Jr., one of the attorneys giving the city advice on the bond, said he needs to have proof of a referendum in hand before he gives a bank an opinion on moving forward with the debt. 

"If we can't lay our hands on the (old) referendum document," Pope said, "we thought it was proper to advise the city to have the (new) referendum."

It's unclear how the original document of that referendum was lost. The city lost several records during Hurricane Hugo. The needed documentation isn't filed with the S.C. Secretary of State, either. 

Meanwhile, the Folly Beach Water Utility has been operating without interruption. City Administrator Spencer Wetmore said the water provider has a director, one full-time technician and two other technicians who share their time with other city departments.

If City Council approves it, the referendum question would appear on the ballot in the April municipal elections. 

City officials will have to walk a careful line until then as they explain why the referendum is even needed. If it doesn't pass, the city would not be able to issue a bond. 

"It is going to be confusing and that’s why we can educate," Goodwin said. "But we can’t tell (residents) how to vote."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.