Water czars and sewer boys in Fayette County

Scott Bradshaw's picture

Last Friday, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners and the Fayette County Water Committee hosted dedication ceremonies for the newly constructed Lake McIntosh. Quite a few politicians, water czars and sewer boys were in attendance. Local lakes, drinking water, sewer service, storm water fees and other associated costs of clean water have been front page news in Fayette County for several months.

The purpose of this column is to clarify the role and responsibilities of the related governmental authorities, committees and other entities vying for fees and tax dollars to provide clean water to Fayette County residents. It is not an attempt to make a political point or evaluate the effectiveness of the intertwined efforts of local governments.

Members of the Peachtree City Water and Sewage Authority (PCWASA) recently sought a change that would permit them to expand sewer service outside the boundaries of Peachtree City without city council permission. Taxpayers and City Council members were reluctant to support the proposal for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that easy access to sewer in nearby Coweta County will promote high density development. Such development will place transportation and other infrastructure demands on the city while Coweta County receives tax revenue and other benefits of the developments.

A secondary reason is that many residents of Peachtree City don’t have access to sewer despite being on the hook for debt incurred to purchase the system from Pathway Communities and additional debt to pay for needed repairs. Some residents ask: Why should the city offer sewer service to outsiders when it can’t provide sewer to those who are responsible for paying the debt of the system?

Soon after that idea was quashed comes the shocking news that the Peachtree City Council is considering a proposal to double the stormwater fees levied on home owners, add several city employees for stormwater maintenance,purchase shiny new equipment and borrow upward of $7 million to continue feeding the beast.

Last week, Fayette County Commissioners followed suit by sending bills to residents of unincorporated Fayette for a similar program. These stormwater programs are designed to manage rainfall surges related to erosion control and sediment in streams and lakes. Elected officials continue to argue that these new and increasing fees are not property tax increases despite being administered to all property owners in a uniform manner.

After reading the blogs and talking with several citizens, this writer concluded that few people understand the role, responsibilities and budgets of the Peachtree City Water and Sewer Authority (PCWASA), the Fayette County stormwater utility, Peachtree City stormwater department, and the Fayette Water System. The following paragraphs offer a primer course in water and sewage in Fayette County.

First, PCWASA does not provide water to Peachtree City residents or anyone else despite being titled “water and sewer authority.” It only provides sewer service to certain residents of Peachtree City.

The city of Fayetteville, town of Tyrone and town of Brooks provide sewer service to their respective residents. Sewer service is not available in unincorporated Fayette County because Fayette County Commission members have traditionally viewed the lack of sewer availability as a useful tool in prohibiting high density development.

Public water in Peachtree City is provided by the Fayette Water System (FWS) which is an entity of the Fayette County government. The members of the water board are advisory to the county commission, and water service to county residents including those in the cities is the ultimate responsibility of the five county commissioners.

The Fayette Water System uses Line Creek, Whitewater Creek, Lake Peachtree, Lake Kedron, Lake Horton and a small network of strategically placed wells as the source of water for Fayette residents including those who reside in Peachtree City. Lake Peachtree is owned by Peachtree City and is used as a county reservoir by agreement between the county and Peachtree City. The other lakes including the recently dedicated 650-acre Lake McIntosh are owned by Fayette County.

Peachtree City resident’s bills for water and sewer are collected by the Fayette Water System with the sewage portion being transferred to PCWASA to cover debt service and operating expenses of the authority. Peachtree City residents without sewer access are not billed for sewer service but they are ultimately responsible for debt incurred by the sewer authority.

Second, PCWASA has nothing to do with stormwater or the annual storm fee paid by Peachtree city residents. The Peachtree City stormwater program commonly known as “water run-off” is not a separate utility or authority. It is operated as a separate kingdom within City Hall and the annual fees are collected from property owners and budgeted by the City Council in a special budget line item known as the storm drain utility fund. The fund is dedicated to the repairs, improvements and replacement of the water run-off infrastructure which was primarily constructed and paid for by developers at no cost to the city. The new Fayette County stormwater utility will operate in a similar manner.

This writer’s boring explanation of the complicated organization and delivery of the local water, sewer and stormwater detention programs sets the backdrop for readers to understand why it is difficult for political leaders to get a handle on long-term debt for infrastructure and capital expenditures. Low interest rates on bonds have generated spending sprees in Fayette County and Peachtree City that are unprecedented.

The emerging problem of long-term local debt will be featured in a future column. Meanwhile, the water czars and sewer boys will continue to increase fees and obligate taxpayers to increased long-term debt until there is rebellion at the ballot box.

Enough said!

[Scott Bradshaw, a resident of Peachtree City, is a real estate broker and residential real estate developer. His family has owned property in what is now Peachtree City since 1820, before there was a Fayette County. He may be contacted at rand5474@bellsouth.net.]

aliciadjones3
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good

I am visiting this blog very often. It's good to see that put words from the heart and your clarity on this important subject can be easily observed.
Plus Sizes

Betsy Tyler
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Water & Sewer - additional info

Mr. Scott Bradshaw has written a great column about the convoluted relationships among Fayette County’s water, sewer, and stormwater management agencies. The multiple agencies involved can make the issue very confusing, and all three programs comprise significant costs borne by the customers, all of whom are Fayette County residents, businesses, and property owners.

I wanted to add some additional information and history to his clarifications, at least as far as the Peachtree City agencies are concerned.

Sanitary Sewer Service

Prior to 1997, Peachtree City residents on sewer received service from Georgia Utilities (GU), a privately owned sewer company operated by the primary developer of the community at the time. Customers were billed via the Fayette County Water System because sewer utility bills were based on water consumption. Because GU was privately owned, there was limited regulatory oversight on the maintenance of the system and no regulation of the system’s rates.

In 1997, the pre-existing Peachtree City Water & Sewerage Authority (WASA), which is a separate legal governmental entity from the City of Peachtree City, acquired the sewer system through a revenue bond that the City backed with its full faith and credit. This was done to achieve the lowest possible interest rate, since WASA had no assets or prior credit history. In essence, the City co-signed the loan.

As a condition of the City’s backing of the bonds, WASA was required to submit any plans to extend the sewer outside the City limits for approval by the Peachtree City Mayor and Council, the political ramifications of which Mr. Bradshaw explained in his column. With the repayment of the original bonds, the City’s liability would have ended, as would the authority to approve or veto extension of the system. Council’s only authority at that point would be the appointment of the volunteer citizens who serve on the WASA board.

For the past 15 years, WASA has operated the now publicly owned sanitary sewer system under State and Federal supervision, and has continued to pay Fayette County Water for the customer billing function. During this time, WASA implanted upgrades and repairs to the aging infrastructure with a large portion of the bond proceeds while repaying the original bond debt exclusively from customer fees. No City funds have gone into the system during this time.

Recently, the WASA board began to look at refinancing the existing bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates. They could have achieved this refinancing on their own, eliminating the City’s liability and expansion oversight. However, WASA asked the City to again extend its full faith and credit for the bonds to lower the interest rate and ultimately save money for the system’s customers. Council agreed, but only under the condition that their approval for any extension outside the City remain in force.

Meanwhile, In Stormwater Issues

The City of Peachtree City created its Stormwater Utility in 2006. For reference, “stormwater runoff” is any rain that doesn’t soak into the ground and runs across the surface (or through a pipe) to our streams and lakes. The primary contributor to stormwater runoff is development – buildings, parking lots, streets, sidewalks, and cart paths, along with the associated changes in the natural slope of land and the plants that formerly grew there.

In 1993, the Federal Clean Water Act required major population areas (communities with 100,000 people or more), to meet certain requirements regarding how they managed their stormwater runoff. In 2003, those requirements extended to smaller communities, with populations between 10,000 and 100,000 (which includes Peachtree City).

At that time, and for decades prior, the City managed stormwater through the Public Works department and by requiring builders and developers to install stormwater infrastructure as they developed neighborhoods and sites – pipes under the roads, retention and detention ponds, etc. The City also retained a lot of undeveloped green space, which helps to slow and filter stormwater, and budgeted funds for staff to repair drainage areas that were showing problems. However, by 2003, some of that infrastructure was reaching the end of its useful life and starting to fall apart – an issue the City had not previously had to deal with arising at the same time that more stringent requirements were being imposed by Federal law.

To put this in tax dollar terms, from the late 1990s through 2003, Peachtree City budgeted about $50,000 dollars per year for pipe replacement and materials to maintain the stormwater system. However, heavy storms in 2004 and 2005 revealed some major failures that had to be addressed quickly. In 2005, prior to the Stormwater Utility, the City spent $500,000 in tax dollars on emergency stormwater repairs, with only $50,000 budgeted. That means $450,000 had to come from reserves or from other programs or projects – like cart path repairs, street maintenance, or something else. And the City was facing at least $9 million more in necessary drainage repairs that they knew about.

As Mr. Bradshaw noted, the City could have merely raised taxes to pay for these repairs and meet the new requirements. However, property taxes are based on the value of the property, which does not necessarily correspond to how much the property impacts stormwater runoff. It also does not address tax-exempt properties, like churches and schools, which have very large buildings and parking areas that definitely impact stormwater runoff.

Instead, the City implemented the Stormwater Utility, basing the fee on the total amount of impervious surface on each property. The City’s program also provides several ways for residential property owners to receive credits, or discounts, on their annual bills. These include having a large lot that demonstrably helps to filter the runoff and participating in local cleanup efforts like the Adopt-A-Mile or Adopt-A-Path litter removal programs. The result is a funding mechanism that, while still paid by the community, factors each property’s actual contribution to the system. All Peachtree City property owners also contribute to the City’s portion of the stormwater bill, which covers the City-owned streets, buildings, parking lots, and paths that are shared by all residents.

Mr. Bradshaw is also correct that the City is looking at issuing new bonds to fund additional stormwater projects (although no new employees or equipment are proposed). Of the original $3.6 million bond, only $600,000 remains. The proposed $7.4 million is for additional projects to remain in compliance with Federal Law.

Why it matters

Whether we’re talking about water, sanitary sewer, or stormwater, we’re talking about our health and quality of life, and about issues that property owners can’t tackle individually. The water that we allow into our lakes and streams (along with any auto fluids dripped onto roads and parking lots, Georgia clay eroded from stream banks, or improperly treated sewage that works its way down stream), ends up in our faucets and the faucets of those downstream. Just like Fayette County sees whatever flows off the runways of the world’s busiest airport to our immediate north.

The problems associated with clean water, whether it’s being withdrawn from a lake for drinking or is flowing back into those same streams and lakes from our sanitary and storm sewer systems, crosses jurisdictional boundaries. The solutions must also cross those boundaries, and the significant expenses remain, whether they are imposed by a City, County, or State, or a department, utility, or other entity.

Mr. Bradshaw promised a future column outlining his concerns for long-term local debt associated with these agencies, and I look forward to his insights on alternate funding options for these mandated expenses.

Sincerely,
Betsy Tyler
Public Information Officer/City Clerk
City of Peachtree City

NOTE: More information on Peachtree City’s Stormwater Utility is available at www.peachtree-city.org/stormwater, including the Credit Technical Manual under Documents & Links. Property owners must submit a request for a credit by March 1 each year.

cogitoergofay
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Bradshaw Right: PTC is Dysfunctional

Bradshaw Right: PTC is Dysfunctional

When I first noticed the latest Scott Bradshaw Editorial and the 24-red-alert-official-response from Peachtree City Admin, I put them aside. After all, I knew what to expect. Mr. Bradshaw has proven his integrity with his prior service on the Development Authority and with his past public opinions. I hope he runs for PTC Council this fall. So I knew that what he said was likely reliable. Likewise with the City Hall response, I knew it would be a misleading piece declaring our love of life and repeating typical “we do the best we can” clichés. Admidst the multiple stories of sexual misconduct by numerous elected and appointed officials, including department heads in PTC, I decided to give it a rest.

Finally having the time this weekend to read both pieces, I was shocked at what I read.

Mr. Bradshaw was absolutely right when he said: “ The PTC Council is considering a proposal to double the stormwater fees. . . and borrow upward of $7 million to continue feeding the beast.” Labeling the PTC Stormwater Utility as a “separate kingdom” Mr.Bradshaw correctly concludes (in succinct fashion) that “it is difficult for political leaders to get a handle on long-term debt for infrastructure and capital expenditures.”

Restated: PTC has not handled long-term water and sewer issues with any acumen at all. The latest article on Mayoral candidate Fleisch’s concern about maintenance has nothing to do with vital infrastructure but with recreation fields and subdivision entrances. Oh, well.

The shocking aspect was the official response by PTC found in Ms. Tyler’s “Additional Info”. In it she admits that when the City planned the Stormwater Utility 2005, they estimated that it would cost “$9 million” to fix all of the issues in order to comply the mandates of the Federal Clean Water Act. And yet the City only borrowed that “$3.6 million”. Is it as shocking to everyone else that the City has essentially admitted refusing to do what they are required to by law? After hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of engineering studies and legal opinions, the City has simply ignored its duties and now faces the necessity of doubling your Stormwater fees.

Most PTC Citizens won’t notice and won’t care and that would appear to include at least one member of council.

AtHomeGym
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Bradshaw & Stormwater

I live in unincorporated FC and have not received any sort of "fee" bill yet. If I do, I'll not pay it until they show me how they derived such a bill without some qualified professional inspecting my property--which I don't think they'll be able to do. Sounds like the outgoing Clowns are making a final stab at irritating those who have thrown them out of office --and without consulting the requisite professional technical advice. And just how much is that new County Dept costing us to support?

cogitoergofay
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Correction, Mr. Bradshaw. I

Correction, Mr. Bradshaw. I normally agree with you. In fact, I hold you in high regard. Your article displayed a number of factual inaccuracies. Stormwater regulation was imposed for a much broader set of requirements than erosion and rainfall surges. However, I will give you a high grade for effort. Check out the many websites on clean water and stormwater. You'll see. It is a beast that is a necessity and one that originated (by necessity) at the federal level.

loanarranger707
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Learning about water and sewers

This information was helpful. It’s too bad the article had a bit of a negative tone and was accompanied by dubiously appropriate references to “sewer boys” and the like. Nonetheless, one could learn something useful from it, and I commend its author for his effort. (Having Fayette ancestors dating back to 1820 is interesting; it doesn’t add too much to anybody’s competence or authority, but it doesn’t detract from it either. 1920 would be just as good.)

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