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Water trade favors Lamar County taxpayers

By Peter L. Banks, Mayor of Barnesville In the past several weeks columns appeared in The Herald Gazette by Kent Kingsley which presumably tried to give the history of the Lamar County Water Authority according to Kingsley’s recollection. He also gave his ‘solutions’ to the financial crisis facing the authority and county while making untrue statements about Barnesville. It’s important to clarify the history of the relationships between Barnesville, the Lamar County commission and Lamar County water authority, as well as events that have led to the current situation. Barnesville has served customers outside its city limits for more than 60 years. In fact, according to the state mandated Service Delivery Agreement with Lamar, Barnesville was the exclusive provider of water services in the county until it was amended to include the Lamar County Water and Sewer Authority in 2001. Barnesville has never refused to sell water to the authority; in fact it offered and entered into a contract for a rate that was below market rates offered by Griffin and Jackson and allocated 1,000,000 gallons per day for 50 years to the authority. Kingsley’s statement that the city tried to prevent the ‘birth’ of the authority is undoubtedly a reference to the many times Barnesville encouraged Lamar to do a professional economic feasibility study analyzing the financial viability of a county water system before committing to the endeavor. The city commissioned and paid for a preliminary engineering study and cost analysis for the benefit of the county and authority and presented it to them only to see them ignore the summary conclusions that showed the financial problems of the plan. In recent months, the water authority and commissioners have sought a solution to the debt crisis related to the authority’s water system. The simple fact is there aren’t enough rural customers taking service to support the annual operating costs and the debt service. It isn’t a new problem; it’s not the result of the housing bust or the deep recession. In 2005-06 (before the recession) the water authority recognized if every proposed lot in every planned subdivision in Lamar were built out in 24 months and connected to the system it would still not be able to meet the debt service obligations. For several years the water authority was able to pay interest only on their loans to give time for development to occur and customers to be added to the system. In 2006 the system had 455 customers, less than half the nearly 1,000 customers needed to meet the operating cost and debt service scheduled to start in July 2006. Both the authority and commissioners have been diligent in their review and analysis of the financial challenge of keeping the authority solvent. They’ve had financial service experts review operating and debt service expenses; they’ve reduced costs in every area possible while still meeting the requirements associated with operating a public drinking water system. I believe the authority and county exhausted every option available prior to entering discussions with the city. In May the authority proposed an agreement to commissioners that would require the county to pay to the authority some $470,000 a year as fire hydrant fees. The premise was the county was responsible for providing fire protection in the county and because the authority had installed the water distribution system and fire hydrants the county would be justified in sharing this cost. I’m sure the commissioners gave thorough consideration to the proposal but recognized the impact that would have on the millage rate (property taxes) currently under consideration. Up to this point there has been a civil discussion and analysis between the city, county and authority, with all parties working to find a solution that best serves the citizens of Lamar. However, Kingsley clearly wants to turn this into a political football. Kingsley’s ‘solutions’ are outlandish and aren’t viable in the least. His first is to suggest the authority ‘do nothing’ and see if GEFA will foreclose on and take over the water system. He conveniently fails to mention it was under his leadership as commission chairman that Lamar first began to guarantee these ill-fated loans with the full faith and credit of the county without requiring an independent professional financial feasibility study. GEFA is a financing authority, not a water system operator. They financed the system relying on the guarantee and taxing authority of the commission and expect the notes and guarantees to be honored, as well they should. His second suggestion is to ‘ask for special legislation to hold a binding referendum to consolidate Barnesville and the county.’ In other words, he suggests turning the water system over to a government that doesn’t exist and couldn’t exist for two to three years if the voters elected to create it. We’ve had discussions with the Carl Vincent Institute of Government at the University of Georgia on this subject as a long range possibility. However, it’s clearly not a solution for the problem we’re presented with today. His third solution is to have Lamar raise property taxes on everyone to pay for a water system only 886 customers use. Most people would want to know how much the millage rate would have to be raised before offering such a solution. Kingsley must have forgotten Barnesville, Milner, Aldora and many industrial and residential customers of Lamar wouldn’t be included in paying the proposed tax increase for the rural water system. Georgia Law OCGA 36-60-17.1 prohibits charging any fee or charge for water supply services made available but not used. When the city was first asked to consider the possibility of this merger we agreed to start an analysis but emphasized if at any time the county or authority came to another solution we’d gladly withdraw from the discussion. The real, serious truth is cost savings created by merging the operating costs of the authority’s system with Barnesville’s existing personnel and operating programs is what makes this transaction economically feasible for the city. The city has operated a public water system for more than 100 years. Barnesville has miles of pipeline in place in the county that serve citizens of Milner, the industrial park, Aldora, Continental Tire and many more. Comments have been made that if the city owns and operates the authority’s water system the county would lose control of its future. We’re talking about a water utility operation. Other utility companies such as Georgia Power, Southern Rivers Energy and AT&T provide services in Lamar. None of the aforementioned utility companies cause the county to lose control of its destiny. They simply provide utility services to citizens the county cannot provide. Does Kingsley feel the county has lost control of its destiny because of them? His comments are just another example of his effort to redirect the discussion away from finding a serious solution. The city has a long history of providing assets, resources and services essential to the quality of life, public health and safety and economic development in all of Lamar County. Let me conclude the whole matter by saying the city didn’t initiate this discussion. We were brought into the discussion by an honest and sincere effort to help find a workable solution to the debt crisis related to the authority’s water system. A solution has been proposed and is under consideration that does not require an increase in property taxes, no assessment and no increase in water rates. It is my fervent hope our community won’t allow this serious discussion to become a playground for political gamesmanship.

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