Madonna Parrish has been a lot of things in her life.
She worked for the Forsyth County elections office, was a writer and even ran for county commissioner. But since 1987, about 2,000 people in the Shady Shores community have known her best as the owner of their water company, Truby Inc.
“The contractor just sort of took off and left this, so we all just sort of pitched in to pay the power bill to keep the pumps on,” said Parrish, 70. “I hunted up the developer and got a bill of sale of it so we’d all have water to our houses ... and I’ve been doing it since.”
Back when she first bought the water system, the subdivision’s homes were using well water. But due to the rapid growth, Parrish started purchasing water from the county and pumping it to her customers in 1990.
The state’s Environmental Protection Division issued Parrish a permit for up to 750 properties, though she currently serves about 600 in the community northeast of Cumming near Lake Lanier.
Truby Inc. is one of just a few companies that buy water from Forsyth County or Cumming to resell to homeowners.
The businesses make a profit from the sale and customers get water, though in most cases they don’t have any other options for service.
Officials say the current setup dates back to 1988, when the county passed its first special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST. Money from the 1-cent tax went to extend water lines to underserved areas of the county.
“Most of the time people wanted to switch over to county water,” said Tim Perkins, county water director. “But some of them hung on. Some of them were profitable in their businesses and the people were happy with their wells.
“For one reason or another, county water may not have been extended there and so they’re lingering on.”
But over the past two decades, communities have grown and some wells have not been able to keep up with demand.
To that end, some communities have joined together to lay their own water lines, while others started buying water from the county through a homeowners association.
Still others buy water from the county through other companies like Amos Plumbing & Electric Co., which owner Pete Amos said serves nearly 500 homes scattered across the county.
“Most of these things were put in in the early ‘80s when they were running few water systems through the county and it was just easier for the county to tie onto them and not have to [install pipes] running through these subdivisions,” he said.
“The point is most of these homes are on the sides of roads and off roads and the ones that are available to county water usually tie on because sometimes county water is not available and there’s no choice.”
The county buys its water from the city of Cumming, which pays a little more than a penny for every 1,000 gallons of water it withdraws from Lanier.
In addition to paying $2.48 per 1,000 gallons for city water, the county must also pay state fees, quality testing and other expenses. To turn a profit, the county charges a higher rate than the city.
Commercial businesses, including those which resell the water, pay $3.72 per 1,000 gallons. Like the county, Amos, Parrish and other businesses increase their rates since they are subject to the same expenses.
For a 7,000-gallon water bill, which is typical for a large family, the city would charge $18.55. That same bill would be $31.71 for a county water customer and $48.93 for a Parrish water customer.
Parrish’s daughter Susan Sanner, who manages billing for Truby Inc., said the company’s price structure is needed to cover its bills.
“If we sold it to them for what the county charged, who would pay us to read meters, for repairs and water testing,” she said. “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that people don’t take into account.
“If there’s a water leak, we have to fix it because we have to pay for that water, even if it’s just going on the ground.”
“Any business has overhead,” Parrish said. “You can’t stay in business if you’re not paying your expenses.”
Parrish said she tried to get the county to take over the community’s water service several years ago to no avail.
Perkins said that stance is unlikely to change.
“It’s a liability,” he said. “We don’t know what’s in the ground. We don’t know where [the pipes] go, we don’t know what’s hooked up or how it’s hooked up. And to take something over that we don’t know anything about is not of interest.
“We would only be interested if they were brought up to our current standards and inspected.”
Cumming Utilities Director Jon Heard said a water setup like the one in Shady Shores is more common in the county.
Heard said pipelines run by private companies, in most cases, would not be able to handle water directly from the city.
“They might be older and smaller and they may be composed of materials that could not handle the pressure the city would place on them,” he said. “The city would have to replace the water lines in these communities, so they could withstand the pressures generated by the city’s water sytstem.”
Somewhere between the city’s system and the homes it serves, there likely is a pressure reducer, Heard said.
With private water companies, he said, the “water quality is still the same, there’s just less pressure.”
Parrish said her foray into the water business was unintentional.
“We needed to keep water going to the subdivision and I had some rental houses that I couldn’t get a well into to reach them,” she said. “I did it for my own self-interest.
“But I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to do it the right way. So I went ahead and took the classes and took the state exam and I [became] a licensed water operator.”
Parrish has been licensed for about 20 years and Sanner for about 11 years. Parish’s 22-year-old granddaughter Jessica Owens, who reads the water meters for the company, is in the process of earning her license.
Truby Inc. has become a three-generation family business, though Parrish admits she never thought of it that way.
“The bottom line is we have to have water to these houses and the county wouldn’t help us out,” she said. “So far nobody’s made a firm offer and it’s going to have to be a good offer for my customers too.”
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