BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) — The South Fork Utility District plans to merge with the Bristol Bluff City Utility District.

According to a press release Wednesday, leaders from both districts have tentatively agreed to move forward with a merger, which South Fork leaders will vote on next week.

The proposed merger comes after a state comptroller’s investigation into the South Fork district found “questionable payments” of nearly $1.7 million to the utility’s district manager, Garry Smith.

According to the release, the comptroller’s office recommended that South Fork merge with the Bristol Bluff City Utility District. The release said the proposed merger is also supported by Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, who called for the resignation of the utility district’s board of directors.

“This is probably the best solution to a very difficult problem. Everyone’s efforts were to maintain good water service to that part of the county,” Venable said about the merger.

No members of the South Fork board will serve on the Bristol Bluff City board, according to the release.

In the release, Bristol Bluff City Utility District Manager Tim Ham said there were “no suggestions” that criminal activity took place among South Fork management.

Ham said South Fork tried to quickly modernize its infrastructure but did not comply with Tennessee utility law requirements.

Venable agreed the matter was not of criminal nature.

“That’s not the way you run a water district,” Venable said. “In my opinion, there was no intent to violate the law. I think there was just an ignorance of the law.”

The South Fork Board of Directors will vote on the merger during a public meeting on April 26. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the Blountville courthouse.

According to the release, the Bristol-Bluff City district will conduct an independent rate study to ensure fair and equitable rates for customers, a study the South Fork board had already authorized after it approved a 5 percent rate increase earlier this year.

Current South Fork customers welcomed the merger. They said their water bills have gone up recently.

“I’m one person and it’s $44/month and that is ridiculous. If they merge and they can do better, I’m all for it,” customer Toni Peters said.

Venable said he must also approve the merger. He said because of the aging water infrastructure in South Fork, a rate increase may be a possibility.

But he said any rate increase must make sense for county residents.

“I can’t say that they don’t need a rate increase to provide the service. We’ll see if they can justify one to their customers,” Venable said. “If it’s not something that I think won’t protect the public’s interest, I won’t approve it. If it does, I will approve it.”

The South Fork Utility District was created in 2020 with the merger of the Holston and South Bristol-Weaver Pike Utility Districts. It serves about 3,500 customers.

The Bristol Bluff City Utility District will serve around 6,000 customers following the merger with South Fork.