History shows that water contracts have been a complex and contentious issue for Cumming and Forsyth County over the decades.
A town hall meeting at the Forsyth County Administration Building on Thursday night proved that still holds true.
With hosts Commissioners Jim Boff and Todd Levent, the event drew a crowd of about 100 residents, political candidates and activists.
Forsyth does not have a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, but Cumming does. So the county buys most of its untreated water from the city, as well as some treated water.
Those contracts will expire in less than two months. With no other immediate options for water, Forsyth hopes to renegotiate terms with Cumming. But the current commission has yet to make a proposal.
During a Feb. 28 work session, the commission voted 3-2, with Boff and Levent opposed, to pursue extending the current contract through Oct. 31.
Those voting in favor said the later date would allow the county to work out the deal alongside the talks on the 1-cent local option sales tax, or LOST. Its vote wasn’t final, though.
An intergovernmental agreement requires four-fifths of the commission, or three of five votes after a public hearing is held, which will be April 5.
Boff, who chairs the commission, organized Thursday’s meeting as a chance for the public to dive deeper into the “incredibly complex” issue.
All commissioners were present except Patrick Bell, whom Boff had asked to attend a meeting of the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center in his place.
“The city and county are not engaged in a water war of our own,” Boff said in opening. “We are ending months of a 25-year contract and are addressing negotiable points and trying to find a way to proceed.”
Among the terms up for discussion with the city are the amounts and prices of water, as well as the costs the county owes for city infrastructure.
Boff discussed new developments from his discussions with Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt and a meeting with the state Environmental Protection Division, which issues permits for water withdrawals and treatment facilities.
During a meeting a day earlier, Boff said the mayor addressed a January invoice the city sent the county for about $11.4 million, or 65 percent of the total cost, for an intake Cumming built that could draw up to 100 million gallons per day, if permitted.
Boff said the county has no legal obligation to pay the bill.
He added that purchasing 65 percent of the intake for the county to own could be “a reasonable thing to talk about,” though Boff said the mayor didn’t seem agreeable to that.
“The other thing he said is that by and large, he didn’t care whether we took any finished water or not,” Boff said, “But he would go up on the raw water … The nominal number he threw out was $1 per thousand [gallons.]”
Under the current contract, the county pays $2.43 per 1,000 gallons for treated water from the city and about 10 cents per thousand for untreated.
A minimum purchase is required, which Hal Schneider, a resident closely following the issue, addressed during the meeting.
“The county is required to buy 1.628 billion gallons per year, when in fact we need maybe half of that,” Schneider said.
By his math, the county paid about $3.3 million last year for water it didn’t need.
Tim Perkins, the county’s water and sewer director, said the calculations could vary based on the maximum amount per day versus the average, but agreed the county has purchased above its needs.
The county has a permit to treat up to 16 million gallons per day, or mgd, at its own plant. Forsyth’s maximum day last year was 21 mgd.
A new facility opening in July will have the ability to treat up to 28 mgd, Perkins said, but the EPD has not yet agreed to raise that level.
The county should be able to treat its own water for about 50 to 60 cents per thousand gallons, he said.
The city charges $2.43, but Perkins said that number is difficult to directly compare to the county’s since it includes maintenance costs and other variables.
The amount of drinking water the county should purchase from the city has been debated. But since the county does not have a permit to withdraw water, it must buy untreated water.
Boff said the EPD is supposed to determine allocation by need, and the county’s need is combined with Cumming.
“In a way, the EPD has legislatively put us into a position of having to purchase water from one and only one source,” he said. “It’s sort of a trap we can’t get out of.”
Boff and Levent met with the EPD last week and requested the possibility of reviewing the county’s application to withdraw from the Chattahoochee River or consider revising the current permit for city and county withdrawals from Lanier.
Levent said the division won’t increase the withdrawals allowed, but it may reconsider the allocations, which currently state that the 37 mgd maximum combined withdrawal is divided with 21 mgd for the city and 16 mgd for the county.
Commissioners Pete Amos and Brian Tam met separately with the EPD earlier this week and returned with another message.
Tam said Thursday that the EPD agreed to discuss future prospects for the allocations in the withdrawals permit with both governments together.
Amos added that they attended separately because they were not told about the first meeting until after it happened.
Tam also offered a different outlook on the city’s bill on a portion of the infrastructure, comparing it to the cost of the county to build its own or invest in reservoirs for hundreds of millions.
Levent said it would cost about $19 million to run a pipe from the Chattahoochee, which would be paid back by his estimated $100 million in savings for the county treating its own water over about 17 years.
Permits aside, the county can count the days until its current agreement expires.
Town hall attendees weighed in on the possibility of Forsyth extending the contract with Cumming.
An extension until October would get the board just past the primary elections, which with only Republicans running for commissioner, would open up the possibility of “lame ducks” voting on a multi-year contract, said Dave Richard, a former commissioner.
He suggested an extension to July 2013 to get the politics out of the process.
Schneider said the downside to that is that the county will continue to pay millions more than it needs to for water.
The board will vote on proposing an extension Thursday after the public hearing.