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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Atlanta, north Fulton at impasse over water

By D.L. BENNETT www.ajc.com

Legislators have failed to resolve a stalemate between Atlanta and Fulton County over the water supply for growing north Fulton.

The failure of HB 1145 late Tuesday leaves the two governments at odds over the allocation of the 90 million gallons of water produced each day from a plant the two own jointly in north Fulton County — and legislators fearing that the dispute could stop economic development north of Atlanta.

Fulton already is using its 45 million gallons per day, while Atlanta has excess capacity it wants to sell to the county at a wholesale rate of $1.10 per 1,000 gallons. Fulton, however, doesn't want to pay what Atlanta wants to charge.

Fulton officials would like to expand the plant to increase their capacity. But they cannot expand the plan without Atlanta's consent. And Atlanta will not agree to an expansion while it has water to sell.

"I don't think it's reached a crisis yet," said Angela Parker, director of public works for Fulton County. "But we certainly need to address it. If we were to get an agreement on some of their capacity, it seems they should get some return on their investment. The question is what's reasonable."

To get past the dispute, powerful lawmakers from north Fulton have been trying to give the local governments there an edge with legislation that would allow them to band together to form a joint water authority and produce their own drinking water. Last year, a local bill by state Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth) died in the state House of Representatives because of opposition by Democratic lawmakers from Atlanta.

State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) and Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) came back this session with a statewide measure, House Bill 1145, that did not have to go through the local delegation.

It would allow local jurisdictions to create their own water and sewer authorities by resolution rather than coming to the General Assembly. However, it ran into its own problems Tuesday night, and Willard and Burkhalter pulled the bill before a vote.
Willard contends that Atlanta is "holding north Fulton hostage" and potentially blocking growth by trying to charge an exorbitant price for its water.

"It all boils down to fairness," Willard said. "Somehow, this has got to be resolved."
Atlanta officials say that Willard, Shafer and Burkhalter are being unfair.

"We are willing to let [Fulton] expand as long as they use our water first," said Rob Hunter, Atlanta's commissioner for watershed management. "I don't think we are being unreasonable in our request. It's a fair rate. No one's being gouged."

City leaders contend that the purpose of the bills is to give the authority the ability to seize Atlanta's share of the treatment plant and the pipe network it has invested millions in over the past century. The city's retail water network expands outside the city through Sandy Springs and much of south Fulton County.

"It could be a grab of our assets that the city has paid for for decades," said Megan Middleton, a lobbyist for the city of Atlanta. "That could put us behind on paying for the bonds on the consent decree."

The city has been so concerned about the bill that it has created a fact sheet on its potential negative impacts. And Mayor Shirley Franklin issued her own statement explaining why legislators should kill the bill.

"H.B. 1145 is bad news for the City of Atlanta," the mayor's statement reads. "It is a not-so-veiled attempt to allow the creation of a water authority that would have the power to take North Fulton water and sewer infrastructure that the City owns and its residents paid for."
Willard complained that Atlanta is either distorting or misreading his legislation and that no takeover is planned.

"There is no way we can condemn property owned by another government," he said.

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