Barrow County and its six whole or partial municipalities have been renegotiating a service-delivery strategy agreement for over three years.

The municipalities of Auburn, Bethlehem, Braselton, Carl and Statham have agreed with the county on the service agreements. The remaining issues to be resolved with the City of Winder are water service and road maintenance.

At a called meeting June 6, the Barrow County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution formally adopting wastewater service, including a service area map, 9-1-1 public safety answering point, emergency medical services and fire service, including an automatic aid fire agreement with the City of Winder.

Under a separate item, the board voted to approve water service and a service area map. Prior to the vote, I issued the following statement.

I want to make the public aware of the county’s proposal and position on water service.

The Highway 316 corridor is the future economic development engine for Barrow County.

The State of Georgia is investing over $100 million in grade separated interchanges at Highway 81, Highway 53, Highway 11 and Patrick Mill Road.

When GDOT’s interchange projects are complete, Barrow County will be positioned on the most sought-after economic development corridor in the state.

There are four essential attributes which business and industry look for when choosing a location in Georgia:

•excellent transportation access

•availability of a skilled quality workforce

•favorable tax climate

•reasonable utility rates

All of these are critical to attracting business and industry to our county.

The county’s water service plan takes a very “pro-business” approach allowing business and industry a choice of water provider. This “choice” will make sure reasonable utility rates are available in the Highway 316 corridor, which is our economic development engine.

The county has the ability to provide reasonably-priced water utility service in the 316 corridor with a water line that has been in place since 2001.

We have an obligation to our citizens and taxpayers to create a pro-business environment in order to attract high-quality, high-paying, job growth in the county. This was a top priority, expressed by our citizens, in our 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

Let me explain why water service is such an important economic development issue.

Winder has roughly 5,000 customers inside the city and 10,000 customers outside the city. Water customers outside the city pay a much higher rate for water, perhaps because they have no political voice inside the city.

Winder levies a 3-mill fire tax which does not cover the cost of their fire department. They don’t levy a property tax; instead they use revenue from their water system to pay for services inside the city. Water customers outside the city end up paying for city services which they don’t receive.

This is a very unfair situation. Unfortunately, the current service delivery law does not go far enough to protect citizens and businesses from this type of “deliberate overcharging.”

Winder’s budgets, financial reports and current water rate study show the city needs to transfer $3-4 million a year from their Water Fund into the General Fund to pay for city fire service, city police service, city road maintenance and other city services.

If Winder were to stop using their water revenues, they would need to levy a 10- to 13-millage point property tax. Winder’s property tax avoidance system results in unfair overcharging of water customers throughout the county.

The city’s recent water rate differential study shows the cost of new water supply capital projects will be placed solely on the customers outside the city. The impact will be a water rate increase, which could exceed 40 percent.

Winder’s water pricing policies are clearly not aligned with the county’s economic development goals.

High water rates, and high water tap fees, work to discourage business and industry from locating here. They choose neighboring counties instead of Barrow.

Currently, the tax digest make-up of Barrow is approximately 70 percent residential and agricultural, and only 30 percent commercial and industrial.

The property tax burden on our homeowners will continue to grow and can only be reduced if we are successful in our efforts to bring in new business investment. The growth of new business and industry will lower the tax burden for every homeowner.

Barrow County’s SDS water service proposal includes several key points that are pro-business and pro-economic development:

•The county agrees to the swap of two, currently vacant, properties on the 1999 water service area map. Winder will serve a tract on Flannigan Mill Road, and the county will serve the 90-acre industrial property, Park 53 North.

•Winder’s water system infrastructure projects, including, but not limited to the Auburn and Fort Yargo water supply projects, will be paid for equally, by all water system customers inside and outside the city.

•The county has an existing 24-inch water distribution line running parallel to Highway 316. It runs the length of the county, from Statham to Carl and Auburn. An “Economic Development Water Service Area” is established along the path of this line. It extends 0.75 miles on each side of the county’s 24-inch water line. Water users within this “Economic Development Water Service Area” will have a choice of water providers.

The county’s water service proposal will benefit all citizens by increasing business investment in Barrow.

Pat Graham is in her second term as chairman of the Barrow County Board of Commissioners, a seat she has held since 2013. She can be reached at pgraham@barrowga.org or 678-300-5367.

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