Forsyth County leaders will vote Thursday on whether to temporarily extend the county's current water agreement with the City of Cumming or duke it out now over a new deal before the May 26 contract deadline.
The issue has divided residents and fractured relations among some county commissioners over whether the city is overcharging for the treated water it supplies to the county.
It has also spurred Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt to proclaim that if the deadline passes, water rates would rise drastically for the county's 47,000 customers.
Gravitt, speaking at a news conference last Thursday, said he's grown tired of the county's foot-dragging. In particular, the mayor said he's had no response from a request for the county to pay its share of the cost for a new $17.4 million water intake facility at Lake Lanier. The facility was constructed in an emergency, he said, when drought conditions lowered the lake level below the old intake pipe.
The city billed the county $11.4 million -- 65 percent of the cost, based on its share of the water used -- three months ago.
Forsyth gets almost all its water -- about 12.2 million gallons a day -- from Cumming's intake pipe at Lake Lanier. Last year, the county paid the city $4 million for treated water and $269,000 for raw water. Under terms of the contract, it must buy about 4 million gallons a day of the more expensive treated water. The city charges the county $2.43 per thousand gallons for treated water and 10 cents per thousand for raw water.
"It's time for the 18,000 customers of Cumming and Forsyth County to quit subsidizing and for the county to pay up," Gravitt said.
The mayor added that the city has honored its 25-year contract to the letter and has given the county the cheapest rates for water and sewer in the region.
Later that day, more than 70 people packed the county commission chambers to hear the county's side of the issue. County Commission Chairman Jim Boff and Commissioner Todd Levent told the crowd they believe the county has no legal obligation to pay Cumming for a share of the new facility unless the county is awarded part ownership.
Residents at the meeting said they objected to Cumming's iron grip on water. They said the county could save millions if the city didn't insist on a minimum purchase of treated water.
Some residents also criticized commissioners Pete Amos, whose district includes Cumming, and Brian Tam, who operates a restaurant in the city, for engaging in negotiations. They called their affiliations with the city a conflict of interest.
Tam, for his part, said Forsyth's options are limited. Building a dam would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and constructing a pipeline to tie into the Gwinnett system or to the Chattahoochee River would cost more than $15 million.
In the end, he said, Forsyth County would remain a water customer and still pay a much higher rate for water.
He argued that a temporary extension of the current contract would allow both sides time to tie water talks to negotiations for other services and sales tax allocations scheduled for later this year.
Thursday's meeting is at 5 p.m. in the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Building.
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