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Gainesville projects delayed by lost water revenue
City hopes state eases restrictions soon
James Marlowe, with sign, and Joe Hyde direct traffic and move barriers in January as they open the new portion of Dawsonville Highway. Gainesville has had to delay many water and sewer projects due to lost revenue, but moving utility lines in road construction areas had to be completed. - photo by ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN The Times

Over the past year, Lake Lanier has gotten shallower, and so have the pockets of Gainesville's Public Utilities department. As a result, some of the area's development plans will have to wait.

The department must put some of its major sewer and water system projects on hold until state water restrictions are relaxed and the department can bring in more revenue.

The department has seen a significant decrease in its revenue since a 10 percent reduction in winter water use became mandatory for nearly 61 drought-stricken counties across North Georgia four months ago.

In December alone, water sales were down 17 percent. The utility took in about $330,000 less in December 2007 than the $1,455,000 it raked in during the same billing cycle one year earlier, according to Tina Wetherford, the utility's manager of finance and administration.

Utility officials briefed Gainesville City Council on the drought's financial implications for the utility at a retreat last month and told council members the department would make up for lost revenue by pushing back some of its major sewer system expansions.

With the drought taking its toll at about the same time as an economic downturn, Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said the two elements combined have made "it a pretty bad year for the water department."

"The sewer's budget is considerably smaller," Randall said.

The department had planned to make room for commercial development on Athens Highway by installing gravity lines that would extend the sewer system from Monroe Drive all the way to Gillsville Highway, Randall said.

The department has focused on extending the sewer system to the outskirts of Gainesville, so that the city could support industrial and commercial growth there. Extending the system to Athens Highway would have been the final step, Randall said.

"There was a lot of desire from the community to go out (U.S.) 129 (toward Athens) for some time," he said.

The $11.5 million project would have been completed in three phases, making more commercial development possible over the next five fiscal years. The first phase would be the construction of pump station with a daily capacity of 2 million gallons behind the Mack truck dealership on Athens Highway.

The department still plans to complete the pump station by the end of next summer, but the department's revenue will not be able to support the sewer line extensions for another five years.

"Sewer service along Athens Highway ... will be put off for five years unless a developer or the county or others want to step up and help us get service out there," Randall said.

Likewise, the department has been forced to put off $15 million of sewer projects along White Sulphur Road that would provide 6 million gallons a day in capacity.

"The bottom line, any form or fashion of that project has been pushed out past the end of the five years," Randall said. "That's pretty significant because a lot of people are interested in it."

As with the Athens Highway project, the only way to make the White Sulphur extension possible within the next five years would be a public and private partnership, Randall said. The only other way to fund the projects is to raise the rates of the department's 8,607 sewer customers. Randall has no plans for that, since customers have already been asked to help finance the upgrade of the Linwood Water Reclamation facility.

"To ask (sewer customers) to foot the bill ... that may just be a little much to ask of them," said Randall.

To cut financial corners, other sewer projects have also been cut from the department's five-year capital project plan, but the department could not afford to push back others.

With road construction on Dawsonville Highway, Winder Highway and Thurmon Tanner Parkway topping the department of transportation's list of construction projects, the utility will have to continue to finance the relocation of its sewerage lines in those areas. By July, the department will have spent $1.8 million relocating water and sewer lines to accommodate road construction in the area.

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