Barrow County and the City of Winder have yet to resolve two outstanding service-delivery issues, and a court-ordered mediation session earlier this month did not yield any agreements, leaving both parties uncertain about when the issue will be put to rest and when an updated service-delivery strategy agreement will be put in place.
Elected representatives and other officials representing the county and each municipality in the county met in a private session for more than six hours Nov. 5 at the Georgia Club in Statham to discuss the issues of water utility service and county road maintenance but did not come away with an agreement.
It was the fourth mediation session over the past year between the sides and was led by retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher. Fletcher was appointed as the mediator in September by retired Chief Judge David Sweat of the Western Judicial Circuit in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, who was assigned to the case in Barrow County Superior Court.
The parties “mediated in good faith, exchanging a number of proposals on each of these issues,” Fletcher wrote in his report to the court. The parties were required to sign non-disclosure agreements prior to the session.
The case now heads back to Sweat, though it’s not clear whether he will order the parties to talk again or make a ruling on the issues, or when the case will go back in front of him. County attorney Angie Davis said she does not expect another mediation session and the county has previously asked the court to make a determination on the remaining issues.
The county and Winder have long been at odds over water service rates and territories. The state’s Service-Delivery Strategy (SDS) Act requires counties and municipalities to agree on which entities can provide services and where. Winder currently has a service monopoly across much of the unincorporated portion of the county and Bethlehem under previous SDS agreements, and the county contends the city has been arbitrarily and unfairly overcharging customers in the unincorporated areas, in violation of the SDS act.
In a petition to the court in July, the county contended that the city overcharged customers outside the city limits by roughly $13.1 million between 2012 and 2017 beyond the cost to provide the service.
The city does not levy a property tax other than its fire tax and transfers excess water system revenues annually to fund the remainder of its fire services and other services for city residents. County officials have said doing so is unfair to the residents in the unincorporated areas who have no political voice inside the city.
“Essentially, a percentage of every one of Winder’s water bills is a disguised city tax and the unincorporated area customers do not receive any additional benefit from the inflated costs,” Davis said. “This is not fair to the unincorporated residents who pay inflated water bills to the City of Winder, and the county has been fighting to right this wrong.”
Davis said the county is also concerned that Winder’s rates are discouraging “much-needed industrial and commercial development” along the Highway 316 corridor and is seeking to service customers along that corridor at lower rates. The city is seeking to block those efforts, she said.
City attorney John Stell rebuffed the county’s claims, saying that the city’s water rate studies in recent years have shown its water rates are “fair and reasonable” and that the county has “no study to show otherwise.”
“The county has failed to identify a single industrial or commercial developer who has refused to locate within the 316 corridor, based on Winder’s water rates,” Stell said.
On road maintenance, the cities argue that the county is required by law to fund county road maintenance solely out of taxes collected from residents in the unincorporated areas, while the county contends the road system is a countywide benefit and should be paid for out of taxes collected from all residents.
“The Service Delivery Act is about taxation fairness and funding equity,” Stell countered. “Right now, the county taxpayers in the cities pay for the maintenance of roads located in both the cities and the county. County taxpayers, however, do not pay for the maintenance of roads located in the cities.”
Stell said that during mediation the city made “several proposals to create funding equity,” including a local transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST), but that the county rejected those.
The parties have been without an SDS agreement since February but have agreed to the other 39 service areas.
State law requires counties and their municipalities to update their agreements every 10 years or face sanctions from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs that make them ineligible for any state-administered grants, loans, permits or financial assistance.
Those sanctions were placed on Barrow and its municipalities, but Sweat issued a stay while the parties underwent the court-ordered mediation.
Davis said the sanctions remain at the court’s discretion but she doesn’t expect them to be re-imposed — “at least not before any hearing on the legal issues.”