Water concerns continue to mount for Upson County. However, this time it's not the health of the water that's an issue; it's the financial health of the county.
In a called meeting Jan. 19, Upson County Commissioners voted to explore other water options outside the City of Thomaston.
“The City of Thomaston has notified us of an increase,” Joel Pitts said during the meeting. “The increases always seem to coincide with plans to improve the system. This time it is to increase the reservoir. Based on that, I have two questions.
“How long will you, the commission, allow us to be held hostage by the city, and how long will Upson County voters allow us to lose $145,000 a year in our water department?”
Chairman Glenn Collins proposed that Steve Hudson, Joel Pitts, and Paul Rogers serve on a committee to look into other water sources. Rogers has been in charge of the water department since the old water authority was suspended. The committee is not a water authority.
At Tuesday night's meeting Hudson provided the commission with a 100-plus-page report on alternative water sources.
“Our intent in this report is to provide the commission with the facts as they have been presented to us and as we interpret them,” Hudson said. “We do not intend to make suggestions. We ask that each Commissioner study this report and that we meet at a time in the future to discuss our options.
“I ask that this meeting be held as soon as possible because we are losing money everyday that we are charging for water the same rate that we were three price increases ago.
“Our water department needs to be ran as a business with one exception, we are not in business to actually make a profit because everything we make is put back into the water system. But we have to make enough money to pay our cost, plus have some capital to expand the system.”
The report focuses on the availability of water regionally.
“We talked with several counties surrounding us,” Hudson said.
The committee visited the new reservoir in Pike County that is owned by the City of Griffin.
Pike and Lamar Counties expressed interest in Upson being part of a regional reservoir in the south east section of Pike County.
“We also looked at package water treatment systems similar to those that were proposed by Water Wise to the former water authority,” said Hudson. “And we looked at a local water system which we have the opportunity to either purchase or purchase water from.”
Rates and fees were compared to other cities and counties. A chart was included in the report that shows Upson's rates and fees compared to eight other counties and cities, including Butts County, Monroe County, Pike County, Crawford County, Spalding County, Coweta County, Forsyth, Perry and Fort Valley.
“One thing we found is that there is no standard water bill,” Hudson said
“Some counties charge a lesser base rate but do not include any water in this rate, while others use a somewhat larger base rate but include either 1000 or 2000 gallons of usage in that rate.
“We did a sample water bill assuming a customer who uses 7,000 gallons of water in a month. The rate would range from a low of $27.10 in Fort Valley to over $50 in Pike County. Upson County ranks in the middle at $37.85. Our tap fees seem to be low, especially on larger sizes of taps; for a 2” tap we charge $1,000 where other counties charge up to $4,373.”
The report also addressed changes to the Upson County ordinances. It would require a developer to provide either a connection to the Upson County water system at his cost, or to furnish a community water system which would be turned over to the county.
Upson County has a similar ordinance in place concerning roads.
Package sewage systems were mentioned in the report.
“The report includes information on a self-contained system, similar to what we are using in Iraq,” Hudson said. “The old days of the army digging latrines are long gone. We could also make this a condition of a subdivision ordinance.
“The systems come in sizes that could serve a small city, but would be great for development.
“I feel that a development of 65 homes that has only one well and one septic tank is a step in the right direction.”
Hudson is referencing a new subdivision being built in Upson that will have a separate well and septic tank for each of the 65 homes.
An agreement with the City of Thomaston isn't out of the question, according to Hudson.
“We need to consider working with the City of Thomaston on a long-time commitment for water,” he said.
“I was in an informal meeting a couple of years ago where we were given an unofficial rate for water if we signed a contract; but that rate was no better than we were getting without a contract.
“I would love to see the County and the City enter into some form of agreement to possibly have a joint water department or authority; but anything that is proposed by either party has to have some advantage to both sides.
“The City can provide the water, but the County provides about 1,800 customers and the greatest opportunity for expansion. I want to make quality, treated water available throughout the county to any new or existing resident who wants it. But I want to stress, never will there be any attempt to force people to connect to the system as has been mis-stated in the past.
“On the other hand we should not consider extending water lines into an area without a commitment of the residents to connect to the system in such numbers that make the expansion economically viable.”
After study of the report, the Commission plans to meet and discuss any changes that should be made. This report is available for review at the County Commissioners office.
The City of Thomaston responded to the Upson County water report. Following is a memo sent to Upson County Commissioner Joel Pitts from City Manager Patrick Comiskey.
After making a cursory review of the financial reports of the Upson County water operations, a few ideas and suggestions are as follows:
1. Review Meter Reading Activities and Water Lines
The water revenue figures show a drop of approximately 2.2 percent from 2004 to 2005. This represents a revenue loss of $17,723. This is of specific interest itself and worth investigating.
Commissioner Frank Spraggins identified a report that presented the appearance of a loss in water accountability for at 47 percent of the water running through the Lincoln Park water meter. This demonstrates an immediate need to perform an audit of each account and all of the lines and meters in that service area to determine the source of the loss. If the 47 percent figure is accurate, the loss in revenue to the county would amount to about $106,522.
We have had two customers of the Sunset Village system state that they have received water bills with large usage fluctuations. This, by itself, should trigger a review of the meter readings in the Sunset Village system. The presence of wide variations of billings is symptomatic of inconsistent meter reading. These reports, revenue losses, and reporting data that indicate losses in the Lincoln Park system suggest that an audit of all the system meters is in order.
A recommendation for on-going water meter reading is to set up a system that requires meter books to be rotated between different readers. The same staff person should not read the same meters all the time. Handling meter reading is the same as handling money. Rotating the readers provides a double check system.
One example of water loss occurred in the later part of 2005 when a worker ran a piece of equipment over a water line in the Johnston Road area and the line was left to lose approximately - a million gallons of water before it was repaired. The mayor called in an exposed and open line along Cobbtown Road in the later part of 2005 that was expelling water with full pressure. Each water line should be walked by staff to ensure that no other leaks are present. The lines should be monitored on a regular basis to identify any potential losses.
2. Managing the Budget
A review of the 2005 budget indicates a lack of budget oversight. The water department surpassed the budgeted operating revenues by 4 percent or $36,414. This is a positive indicator because expenditures should be controlled so as to stay within the projected revenues. The problem is in the expenditure side where operating expenditures exceeded the budgeted amounts by 30 percent or $254,181. The department exceeded budgeted spending in two-thirds of the operating expenditure line items.
The overall staffing level should be reviewed. It appears that some functions could be consolidated so as to require fewer overall positions.
3. Concerns About County General Fund Subsidizing the County Water Operations
The line item budget for fiscal year 2005 does not identify allocations for employee health insurance, retirement, or worker's compensation expenses. An allocation is not presented for liability or property insurance. A concern is raised that some county personnel are performing work for the water function while receiving compensation from the county general fund. This may be the case with Water Superintendent Paul Rogers.
4. Economies of Scales
The county benefits from being a part of the larger city system because the costs of reservoirs, production and distribution are shared with the larger city system. A good example of this is present in the county government operated Sunset Village system. In the case of the Sunset Village system, the county provides well water to customers at a cost of $3.40 per 1,000gallons. This rate is 13 percent higher than the cost the county pays to buy water from the city. And it is important to note that the water provided by the city is from an EPD permitted water filtration plant that is manned 24 hours a day.
5. Economic Development and County Quality of Life
The City rate payers contribute to local economic development and the quality of life of Upson County. In the past two years, the City water fund has provided the monies to extend approximately a one mile water line to the vacant speculative building in the industrial park at a cost of $68,753. The fund paid out over $300,000 to move water and sewer utility lines along Rt 74 to allow the Georgia DOT to widen the road for the benefit of traffic flows from the Upson County School system. The city purchased the Wes-tek water works in 2001 for $1,500,000 in order to allow the three local plant managers to acquire the Wes-tek plant and keep the mill open. This use of water funds helped to keep over 200 jobs in Upson County. And finally, the city is extending a sewer line to the county industrial park.
Several concerns arise from the proposed contract the county is considering with WaterWise, Inc. The first question concerns the legality of setting up contraptions along Potato Creek. Has the Georgia EPD approved of the plan? Second is this a loophole in the law? And thirdly, will the quality of the water be improved by using this process or are the customers provided a better water quality product from the city's EPD permitted, 24 hour a day manned, water filtration plant?
Questions also arise regarding Mr. Jerry Wickcliffe, the WaterWise official identified on the contract provided in Commissioner Hudson's report. Has Mr. Wickcliffe served prison time? And secondly, is Mr. Wickcliffe involved in any of the events surrounding the case of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell?