YOUNG HARRIS - Sammy Smith, recently elected to the Gainesville City Board of Education, appealed to Gainesville City Council members Friday to help the city schools out with their weighty water bills.
The school board paid about $150,000 for water in 2007, Smith said. Smith asked the council to consider a separate rate structure for the city school system because the burden of the bill will fall on residents, he said.
"This rate structure could be a benefit to city taxpayers," said Smith.
Because Gainesville officials are planning for the next fiscal year beginning in July, Smith said now was a good time to consider an alternate rate structure for the school system.
Council members were not immediately receptive to the idea. Councilman George Wangemann said if the city started creating special rate categories for a utility department that is run like a business, financial problems are sure to follow.
"Revenues are down significantly, because of the drought," said Wangemann. "We have to be careful to collect enough revenues."
Smith told the council he understood the idea of a separate rate structure for the school system was a new one. He proposed that the rate structure be phased in over a few years to soften the blow on the public utilities department.
Councilman Bob Hamrick agreed with Wangemann, adding that creating a special rate structure for one group would make other groups feel that they, too, deserved a break on their utility bills. "If you start making exceptions, where do you draw the line?" Hamrick asked.
Smith responded: "The city limits."
Hamrick told Smith he identified with the school board's efforts to save money.
"We're sort of in the same situation you are," said Hamrick. "We're all elected officials looking for ways to cut costs."
Hamrick said the council would work with the school board to ask the state to reincorporate some of the money it had cut from the school system's budget in recent years.
Smith said a bill has recently been introduced in the General Assembly to restore full funding to schools across the state.
"Let us know so we can help you lobby," Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said.
City Manager Bryan Shuler told Smith that the public utilities department is not supported financially by city taxpayers but by its water customers, which include Hall County residents.
"Why wouldn't you do the same thing for the (Hall) County school system?" asked Shuler. "It's not just a citywide utility."
Yet Smith maintained that since the school system was wholly owned by the city taxpayers, the council should look to give them a break.
Mayor Myrtle Figueras offered a solution. "The only thing I can do is give it to staff and let them crunch the numbers," she said.
The council agreed to let city staff look at the possibility of the proposal.
Smith drove to Young Harris this morning to meet council members in the second day of their annual planning retreat on his own. He stressed that he was not sent by any official action of the city school board.