If passed, a measure introduced recently in the state House of Representatives could change the way government agencies buy and sell treated water and sewer services.
House Bill 41, which was authored by District 51 state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, has a long way to go before it would come to a vote.
But regardless of whether it’s approved this session, the bill does something few of its predecessors on the issue have managed — open up a dialogue.
“What’s going to happen with this is every provider is going to take a look at it and see how this is going to affect them,” said Cumming City Administrator Gerald Blackburn. “This will not be the end of this, I don’t think.
“I think when every … municipality and county sits and looks at it, there will be a lot more discussion that goes on about it and there will be a lot more issues brought up that’s not been discussed previously.”
As written, HB 41 would amend state law to prevent a water or sewer service provider from charging more to customers outside its jurisdiction than those living within it.
For the city of Cumming, which provides water to Forsyth County, that would mean county residents would pay the same rate as those in the city.
At the lowest tier of residential service, Cumming currently charges its residents $1.97 per 1,000 gallons of water, while customers in the county who get their water directly from the city pay $2.32 per 1,000 gallons.
The two local governments, following a long process that included mediation, agreed to a 10-year contract in October where Forsyth buys treated water from Cumming for $2.43 per 1,000 gallons. The county then sells the water to its own customers.
The proposed measure would not impact that deal or other government contracts.
District 24 state Rep. Mark Hamilton said he’s not sure the bill would pass, as drafted.
“It would be a challenge because there are many of us that think it would be an example of the state getting into local situations that we’re not sure we need to be involved in,” said Hamilton, a Republican from Cumming.
Current law uses the term “arbitrarily,” saying water providers couldn’t randomly charge a higher price to governments. But the new law removes that word and says simply any higher rate couldn’t be levied.
Hamilton said that change doesn’t seem reasonable, as water service providers face additional costs, including infrastructure and pipelines to reach customers outside their geographical boundaries, that “would probably be the justification for a higher price.”
“By taking out ‘arbitrarily,’ you’re saying it can’t be higher,” Hamilton said. “If you can show there’s justification for a higher price, why does the state want to get involved in that?”
While he hasn’t spoken with the bill’s author, Hamilton said it’s likely the measure could just be a negotiating tool for the cities of Sandy Springs and Atlanta, which are having difficulties over water.
But as a state bill, the ramifications of any legislation would be felt throughout Georgia, which is why Hamilton said the Georgia Municipal Association has been tasked with gathering input from cities on the measure.
Pete Amos, who chairs the Forsyth County commission, said he would wait to learn more about the bill’s intention before commenting on it.
Blackburn said he’s been notified that the survey is on its way and plans to respond with Cumming’s official stance.
“I think this will be an issue where a lot of people who’ve not considered it an issue will take a look at it and there will be a lot more discussion to come out of it,” he said.
“I don’t know that this will be a solve-all … it does not fit every issue that will be presented whenever all the different governments take a look at it.”