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Unchecked capacity
County collecting back fees
Tim Perkins, director of water and sewer for Forsyth County, talks about operations at the Fowler Water Reclamation Facility. - photo by Jennifer Sami


* Sewer situation has developed over years.

Forsyth County’s ongoing effort to resolve sewer capacity issues has stirred confusion and frustration among the local business community.

“They are not refunding people, they’re only going after people that have overages,” said Nick Nichols, a property manager in south Forsyth.
“And they’re also not going after residential, which is not fair if you ask me. It’s going to bankrupt a bunch of us.”

Nichols, who manages a group of 21 buildings near McFarland Road in south Forsyth, is one of about 80 business representatives to receive a letter in the past two years from the county, advising they had exceeded their sewer capacity.

Tim Perkins, the county’s director of water and sewer, said the county has collected $725,000 in back fees so far, with an additional $1.2 million in possible payments. All the money will go toward infrastructure improvement.

Perkins said the additional fees have nothing to do with the county’s financial woes, which have resulted in layoffs and other budget cuts.

In fact, he said the water and sewer department discovered it was running out of sewer capacity from Fulton County in 2007, well before the economy tanked. And not all businesses that had reserved capacity were even tied onto the system.

‘We’re trying to work with them’

While water and sewer bills reflect how much a company uses per month, the sewer capacity fee is different.

When a business first opens, it is charged the one-time fee, which essentially reserves a portion of the county’s treatment facility to process sewage.

But as a business grows in volume, expands operations or changes its daily routine, it may need more capacity.

Perkins said businesses must pay a second one-time fee to reserve that additional capacity.

It’s the county’s job to keep track of businesses overusing their capacity. But until about two years ago, Perkins said, this was not being done.

The county is now caught playing catch-up for years, even decades, of negligence. Perkins said the county started with Johns Creek Technology Park, which is where overuse was first detected.

While attention is focused on those that owe money, Perkins said some businesses have been reimbursed because they are using less than they paid for.

He said businesses must approach the county about the issue and they must be built out. The county commission has the power to approve or deny refunds.  

Perkins said about half the companies that received letters have resolved their issues, either by cutting back on use or reaching a payment plan with the county.

For SwimAtlanta on Johns Creek Parkway, it’s been a little of both.

After the initial shock of receiving notification that he owed $106,562.71 for excess use from Forsyth County, SwimAtlanta co-founder Chris Davis said he contacted the county to prevent his water being cut off.

“We went around and around and I was able to cut my water use way down,” said Davis, noting that repairs to a leaking pool accounted for much of the difference. “Forsyth County has the gun. I don’t.”

Through water-saving measures, Davis was able to drop his water use from more than 4,000 gallons per day to about 2,000 gallons. But that is still well above his purchased capacity of 666 gallons per day.

Davis has since bought an additional 375 gallons per day of capacity for about $9,500, and must buy about 950 more at about $25,000 to be in compliance.

A few kinks remain to be worked out, but Davis is not alone in this situation.

The county is working with every customer who received a notification. The goal, Perkins said, is not to put anyone out of business.

“We’re trying to work with them because times are tough right now,” he said.

First letters sent in January 2008

The county water and sewer department is run much like a business, Perkins explained.

It is supported through a free enterprise fund, which means it is self-sufficient and doesn’t receive any money from the county’s general fund.

The department has, however, seen a drop in revenues because of the economic slowdown.

“Our customers have to pay for the services we provide,” he said. “It’s not funded from taxes in any way.”

He said the department is taking a relaxed approach when it comes to charging the businesses for any additional capacity being used.

Those who can scale back their use to what they originally bought won’t have to pay anything. The county is working with those who need more, Perkins said.

“We’re taking an annual average and working off of that rather than a peak month or a peak day,” he said. “So we’ve been a little bit lenient with what we’re asking them to buy.”

Because of the sluggish economy, businesses are not being pursued aggressively. If extra capacity is being used, however, it’s only fair that it’s
being paid for by those responsible, he said.

The department started monitoring businesses two years ago after the problem was first discovered.

Perkins said in some cases one business had moved out, another moved in. Though the new business may use more water, capacity stays with the property.

Sometimes a businesses’ structure changed, or the business was just using more than projected.

“They may have underestimated, so we’ve just gone through and audited all of the commercial accounts and the ones that are over, we’ve worked with them,” Perkins said.

“A lot of them had leaks or something else. They’ve changed their process sometimes to get back in compliance and then a lot of the others are buying capacity for the extra.”

Perkins said the first letters notifying businesses of the fees went out in January 2008.

The discovery didn’t catch just the county off guard.

Countywide, businesses were surprised to find they were being asked to pay another one-time fee for more capacity.

Many were confused because their water bills hadn’t increased.

The hardest hit business community was Johns Creek Technology Park, where more than 20 businesses were notified of overuse.

The Johns Creek Owners Association, which oversees interests for multiple businesses in the park, sought legal help to determine the best course of action.

In a March 2009 letter to the county, attorney Scott E. Morris with Holt Ney Zatcoff & Wasserman wrote that the association “believes that such increased sewer capacity charges are unfair and unauthorized under Georgia law.”

But after talks with county officials, the businesses decided not to sue and are working to remedy the situation.

For Steve Sanfratello, co-owner of Executive Car Wash in Technology Park, coming into compliance didn’t require much effort.

“What’s happened is that business has just been terrible, so our usage has fallen back within the limits of what we were initially approved at,” he said.

“Forsyth County and I sat down and have an agreement that ... we would have to buy incremental sewer capacity as we grew back and we agreed to it because we didn’t have any other choice.”

James McCoy, president and chief executive officer of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, said he met with county officials after business leaders came to the group with their concerns.

“To be perfectly honest, I understand where the county is coming from,” McCoy said. “At the same time, I understand if you’re a business ... you should not be punished for the growth of your business.”

Businesses buy capacity before they’re up and running. Perkins said the county adopted guidelines a couple years ago that charged tap fees based on a building’s square footage. That raised concerns with the development community and the chamber.

As a result, the county has agreed to negotiate sewer capacity with engineers employed by the businesses.

Perkins said the county will compromise on the fees if doing so makes sense.

“But they have the understanding that if they go over they’ll have to buy more,” he said. “All of this is a work in progress. We’re constantly changing and reviewing.”

Staff Writer Julie Arrington contributed to this report.