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No movement on water contracts

Commissioners' discussion ends with no action

POSTED: August 31, 2012 6:30 p.m.
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Letter sent by Commissioner Jim Boff regarding the water dispute

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Forsyth County commissioners took no votes on water contracts with the city of Cumming during a meeting Thursday afternoon called to discuss the topic.

The previous 25-year agreement expired in May and the governments have yet to sign a new deal.

An agreement is needed because the county does not have a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, while the city does.

The county and city did agree on the terms of a new deal days before that agreement lapsed, but versions of how the final document should look have passed back and forth.

Cumming sent the last draft on July 23, and Forsyth County responded July 26 with a request to extend the previous contract through the end of the year.

The city council denied that request and followed the recommendation of Mayor H. Ford Gravitt to stop selling untreated water to Forsyth if a formal contract is not reached by Oct. 1.

On Thursday, county commissioners didn’t vote to send anything back to the council.

Commissioner Todd Levent presented the versions of the contract that had been passed between the governments since the bullet points of a deal were agreed upon.

According to Levent, the drafts sent by the city did not adhere to those terms, including the mention of service delivery strategy.

Levent said that topic was not addressed in the negotiations, nor was a condition to allow the city to terminate the untreated water purchases after 15 years instead of just the county.

“If they had just simply followed the bullet points that we’d agreed to, we’d have an agreement today,” Levent said.

He asked the commission to consider waiting for a ruling from the state Environmental Protection Division on whether the county’s request to increase its permitted withdrawals will be granted.

A decision is expected around Sept. 16.

If approved, it’s estimated the county would still not have its own intake in the lake for at least six years, said Tim Perkins, Forsyth County’s water and sewer director.

“[The letter does tell you] whether or not you’re going to have to buy finished water,” Perkins said.

An increased permit for withdrawals would allow the county to treat water on its own at its newly opened expansion of the plant, which would allow Forsyth to move from a 16 million gallon per day, or mgd, maximum up to 26 mgd.

The commissioners discussed what would be a fair payment for untreated water in the case that the county doesn’t need to buy any treated water from the city, but didn’t advance to any new proposals.

The debate centered between Levent and Commissioner Patrick Bell.

“I think you’re kicking the can down the road,” Bell said.

“Do you realize what May was?” Levent said. “The can is down the road already … Patience gets the better deal.”

He said the letter from EPD should arrive within three weeks.

Bell replied: “You’re going to end up in court is what’s going to happen.”

What the commissioners did agree on is that the county and city reached a deal and the signatures haven’t made it to the dotted line.

At that point, Chairman Jim Boff opted to end the discussion.

Last week, Boff sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal, the EPD, state Attorney General Sam Olens and the local legislative representatives on the issue.

His letter, dated Aug. 24, asks the state for its “assistance and intervention to help avoid not only a legal crisis — but possibly even a health and public safety crisis.”

Boff sums up the negotiations between the governments, which he called “unsuccessful” and wrote that he “believes the city’s position has shifted further and further away from the commitment made in May.”

He concludes with Gravitt’s recent statement that he will only make treated water available if no agreement is reached by October.

“In short, the mayor’s Aug. 21 statement … is equivalent to a threat by the city to shut off the county’s water supply, as the threat is based upon processing and delivering capabilities that the city cannot meet,” Boff wrote.

The commission on Thursday did not discuss Boff’s letter, which he wrote individually.

It did, however, address pending bills from the city for water, which followed the previous 25-year agreement.

Commissioners voted 4-0, with Pete Amos recused, to approve the pending invoices for August’s treated and July’s untreated water purchases from the city.

Amos has recused himself from votes on the water contracts after the local ethics board ruled in May that his financial interest in a company that buys and resells county and city water to residential customers presents a conflict of interest.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard explained that without an agreement in place, the water department staff declined to make the payments without authorization from the commission.

Jarrard recommended paying both bills, of which the treated water purchase is typically done in advance to meet the contractual obligations.

“There will be a time … where the need for finished water from the city — there will be no need,” he said. “As the weather gets cooler, we will no longer need that finished water and the presentation I will make to you with respect to the purchasing of future finished water will be different.”

Jarrard asked the commission to approve the expenditures “under protest” since no agreement is in place, and include the language that the payment of the bill doesn’t change the county’s rights to “challenge any future invoice.”

Also during Levent’s presentation Thursday, he showed a document from the city that originated in 2006, when both Cumming and the county sought increased water withdrawals from the EPD.

Perkins explained that the plan was an agreement of a split of future water use from the lake intake for each entity.

“But what we found in the footnote was an acknowledgement of an amount we’d never seen before,” Perkins said. “Our 4.5 mgd annual average finished water that we buy … the amounts in their permit referred to that reverting back to the county when the contact expired.”

The document plans for a cancelation of the contract to mean Forsyth County could receive an increase in its EPD withdrawal permit, Perkins said.

 

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