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Water negotiations take twist
Committee may not be used as planned
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Forsyth County News

It appears a recent committee formed to negotiate Forsyth County’s water contract with the city of Cumming will not be the source of those talks.

Commissioners on Thursday did not vote to rescind the committee, which would have been subject to the open meetings act. Rather, the five men began discussing the contract as a full commission and implored each member to bring a proposal for the city to a Feb. 28 work session.

The county buys most of its water from the city, which has a permit to withdraw from Lake Lanier. The county does not.

Forsyth’s water agreements with the city will expire in May, and the governments are expected to renegotiate or renew before then.

During a Feb. 7 meeting, county commissioners authorized Jim Boff and Patrick Bell to form a negotiating committee.

On Thursday, Bell explained the format of that committee "hamstrung" the two commissioners from successfully negotiating due to the requirement that any talks with Boff on the water contract would require a called open meeting.

"Do we want to call a meeting every time Jim and I want to talk about it and have staff come in … and waste taxpayer resources?" Bell asked.

"We were going to put together an offer to send across the street. I didn’t mean we were going to sit down with [Cumming Mayor H.] Ford Gravitt on the county square and have negotiations."

Bell called for the commission to rescind the commitatee, but didn’t receive support from his colleagues.

Commissioner Pete Amos said in order to make a decision, the governing body has to be together, which requires it call a public meeting anyway.

The commission then spent about an hour discussing what terms it might like to see in the water contracts. Two separate agreements are in place, one each for untreated and treated water.

The commission began by determining that renegotiating agreements with the city was its best option.

"This is basically our only source for raw water at this time," Amos said.

The future of the lake as a water source is uncertain as the tri-state water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida continue.
In June, a circuit court reversed a July 2009 decision that would have severely limited much of metro Atlanta from withdrawing water from Lanier, but Alabama and Florida recently filed an appeal.

Until that litigation is resolved, the Environmental Protection Division will not review the county’s permit request to withdraw from the Chattahoochee River, said County Attorney Ken Jarrard.

Though commissioners agreed other water sources need to be explored, the soon-expiring contract with the city will take priority.

It’s unlikely that just letting the water contract expire would mean the county wouldn’t have water to supply its customers, Jarrard said.

"Obviously, we would not be receiving a bill based on anything you’ve negotiated," he said. "It would be a bill based upon what the city as a provider believes is warranted."

The commission discussed securing a long-term agreement with the city for untreated water for up to 50 years, while renegotiating its contract for treated water to taper off.

Under the current agreement, the county must purchase 4.4 million gallons of treated water per day from the city based on a rate that varies with the consumer price index. That cost is currently about $2.43 per 1,000 gallons.

Commissioners hope to reduce the amount of treated water purchased from the city over time.

Forsyth’s new water treatment plant should be operational by July, which will double the amount the county can treat, from nearly 14 mgd to the permitted level of 16 mgd, said Barry Lucas, deputy director of water and sewer.

The capacity of that plant will allow for up to 28 mgd to be treated, Lucas said. In the meantime, the permit limits the county to 16 mgd.

On an average day, he said the county does not need to purchase any treated water from the city.

On maximum-need days, however, the county would not be able to meet the demands of its customers, which have topped 20 mgd.

Also to be negotiated within the two agreements is the money the county owes the city for infrastructure, which could be up to $11 million.