F’ville, Fayette weigh pros, cons of city water system sale
City’s gain: No fire department expenses
The possible merger of the Fayetteville and Fayette County fire departments is still being evaluated, but in the financial aspect, it may be just what the doctor ordered for the county’s ailing fire budget, which is funded exclusively by property taxes.
The county provides fire services for unincorporated Fayette County, Brooks, Woolsey and Tyrone. As such, the only ones chipping in to the county’s fire property tax live in those jurisdictions, as Fayetteville and Peachtree City operate their own fire departments.
But if the county were to absorb the city’s fire department, the county would be able to assess the fire property tax on all properties in the city of Fayetteville, including residential, commercial and industrial development.
It is those last two categories, commercial and industrial development, that are lacking in the unincorporated county, Brooks and Woolsey, county officials said. Over the past handful of years, and particularly as the economic times have slid downhill, so has the revenue from the county’s fire tax.
For this coming fiscal year, the fire fund revenues are down 12.7 percent, leaving the likelihood that property owners who pay a fire tax may face a property tax increase this year, particularly since the fire fund is not covering administrative costs nor is it contributing to the county’s vehicle replacement fund.
County Administrator Jack Krakeel told the Fayette County Commission last week that the ability to diversify the properties assessed for the fire tax is one of the main potential benefits to the county should a merger be pursued.
The county is working on a plan to take on the city’s fire department employees, but it will be able to save some funds by not needing to hire a temporary training officer as the city has done in recent years. That’s because the county already has its own training officials, Krakeel said.
The county is evaluating how shifting the employees from the city to the county would affect the county’s employee pension fund, Krakeel told the commission.
One complication to the process is the city’s use of a federal grant program in recent years to hire additional firefighters. Because of that grant, the city is forbidden to reduce its fire force even by one position, Krakeel noted.
When that restriction expires in the next few years, the city’s fire ranks could once again be reduced in some way, Krakeel noted.
Other fiscal benefits to the potential deal include the possibility of using the city’s impact fee fund to replace the city’s aging fire truck and also the ability to assume operations of the city’s fire station at Ga. Highway 85 and Johnson Avenue, Krakeel said.
The county is still working on getting a value of the city’s various firefighting equipment from turnout gear to its large vehicles, Krakeel said.
Krakeel said it will take at least into June to determine whether or not the merger is workable and in the best interests of the county. But when the recommendation comes, it will have two pieces to it. How to handle a consolidation of the departments and what the options are if that is not workable.
For Fayetteville residents, the main benefit of the merger is they will no longer be on the hook to operate the city fire department. Whether that will translate into an actual tax decrease remains to be seen.
The county fire department currently assists Fayetteville firemen on calls, but the county also provides EMS service to the entire city of Fayetteville. The city has no EMS of its own.
County’s gain: Fire tax, water revenue
The Fayette County Commission has agreed to share the cost of an assessment of the city of Fayetteville’s water system in advance of the county considering a possible purchase of the city-owned system.
It will cost the county about $7,500 for the study. Initially, the city approached the county several months ago about the possibility of merging the departments.
It turns out, however, that due to the city’s existing water and sewer bonds, the only way to make such a deal happen would be for the county to purchase the Fayetteville water system at a level to satisfy the bonds, county officials said.
The main benefit to the county would be the gain in water system customers, according to County Attorney Scott Bennett. But the Fayetteville system needs to be assessed to make sure there aren’t any outstanding or upcoming significant obligations for infrastructure repair or replacement, Bennett added.
“... This has to be self-sufficient enough,” Bennett said. “If we can’t generate enough revenues, we are not going to buy it.”
Commissioner Lee Hearn asked if the county would have to upgrade the city water meters if the change was made, and that was confirmed by County Administrator Jack Krakeel.
“If it’s a good business arrangement for the county to make more money, then let’s do that,” said Commission Chairman Herb Frady. “I don’t want us to do it at all if it will cost us money.”
Commissioner Steve Brown asked if a special “utility district” could be set up to raise rates on city water customers in the future to recover unforeseen costs and “make sure the county utility is not losing out on this deal.”
Bennett said that could be difficult, and if the county couldn’t offer the same rates for all users, he didn’t think the county would want to buy the system.
The plan is to shut down the city’s water production plant and instead use the county’s drinking water treatment plants instead, Bennett said.
The city would retain ownership and operation of its sewage treatment system and plant and presumably would continue billing Fayetteville customers for sewer service.