Forsyth County commissioners are opening up options to go to court over a water contract dispute with the city of Cumming.
The commission entered into an executive session after its Thursday night meeting to discuss “potential litigation,” which is allowed behind closed doors under the state’s open meetings act, said County Attorney Ken Jarrard.
“In spite of our best efforts, we are quickly heading to a very bona fide dispute, one in fact that may necessitate court action [or] involvement,” Jarrard said.
Jarrard referenced a letter from Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt on Aug. 24 declaring that the city would shut off the county’s water supply from the water intake facility at Lake Lanier if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 1.
The county would still be able to buy treated water at a higher rate to provide its customers.
Forsyth has a permit allocation from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, but no “straw” to draw the water from the lake, Jarrard said. As a result, it purchases most of its untreated, as well as some treated, water from Cumming.
The governments have not been able to agree on a new contract since the previous one expired in May.
On Friday, Commissioner Todd Levent said officials didn’t take any votes during their 90-minute closed session, but gave some direction to the county attorney.
They also discussed many options for moving forward from its impasse with the city.
“If the city continues to threaten shutting off our raw water, I don’t see any way around not filing for injunctions and such,” Levent said.
The additional cost of buying only treated water from the city could multiply the price on monthly water bills for county customers, he said, as well as possibly damaging Forsyth’s system.
He hoped the dispute wouldn’t reach that point.
“There’s always a possibility of mitigation,” he said. “That’s always a better solution than going to court.”
Commissioner Patrick Bell felt optimistic that a resolution could occur outside of the legal system.
“If we can’t get things resolved, we’re definitely going to have to look at litigation,” Bell said. “But I’m not so sure that we’re not going to be able to get things resolved.”
He expressed concern over the impact of split opinions among commissioners.
“We’ve got commissioners that want to sit down with the city and negotiate it out,” he said. “And we’ve got commissioners that don’t want to talk to them and just want to go let the courts decide.”
For now, Bell said mediation appears to be an option. He supports staying out of court if possible because the county representatives won’t be making the call.
“You don’t know [what will happen] when you’ve got a judge making a decision instead of the commissioners,” he said. “They’re not going to be looking at what’s best for the citizens. They’re going to be looking at what’s legal, what’s defensible.”
Bell said he believes the two governments can resolve their differences on a new contract if everyone is willing to be open minded and negotiate.
The two sides reached agreement on terms of a new deal in May, just days before the previous 25-year contract expired.
Since that time, however, they haven’t been able to formalize the agreement in a new contract, which led the county to request an extension of the previous deal through the end of the year or until a new one is struck.
The mayor and council declined the offer and returned the Oct. 1 deadline to sign off on a contract.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Forsyth residents who have followed the months-long negotiations spoke in favor of taking the matter to court.
Hal Schneider suggested the commissioners seek an injunction on the city’s plans to cut off delivery of water from the lake in about three weeks.
“We have a crisis on our hands on the first of October,” Schneider said.
Julian Bowen, a former county commissioner, took the stance that a judge may be able to “fill in the details.”
“There’s almost no way that the board and city council can come together on this. Really, the best thing is to go before a superior court judge," he said.
In terms of the Oct. 1 plan from Cumming, Bowen expressed concern that sending only treated water from the city’s plant — with no untreated water to the county plant — could increase the pressure to the point that public safety could be impacted.