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Gainesville to crack down on water violators
First-time offenders get a fine, not a warning
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The city of Gainesville will soon stop warning watering ban violators of their transgressions.

Thursday, the Gainesville City Council voted unanimously, with the exception of Mayor Robert "Bob" Hamrick who was out of town, to approve two ordinances that will eliminate written warnings for first-time violators of the outdoor watering ban and increase penalties for violators.

The new ordinances, if passed into law on second reading, will change Gainesville city code so that first-time violators of the ban receive a $50 surcharge on their monthly water bills, and any repeat offenders will have their water service terminated and receive a $200 surcharge on their monthly water bill. According to the ordinance, water will not be restored to the customer until the surcharge and reconnection fee is paid in full. The new policies will go into effect immediately if approved by council members at the regularly scheduled Nov. 6 council meeting.

Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler said a large majority of the city’s water customers are complying with the current system, which allows for a warning letter on the first offense, but the seriousness of the drought and the lowering lake level called for the changes.

Director of Public Utilities Kelly Randall took the opportunity to thank Gainesville water customers for complying with the watering ban.

"Most all of them have responded well and we really have brought our water usage down quite a bit, and I think that’s great," Randall said. "But ... the times call for a little bit tighter restrictions."

The city’s actions follow those of other local governments in the area.

The city of Jefferson heightened their penalties in mid-September. First-time offenders in Jefferson receive a $500 surcharge on their monthly water bill, and Jeffersonians caught watering a second time have their water disconnected for 24 hours in addition to another $500 surcharge.

Jefferson has also removed all the state’s exemptions to the outdoor watering ban.

Jeff Killip, Jefferson’s public works director, said the system seems to work well in Jefferson.

"We’ve had a very few initial violators and no secondary," Killip said.

On about 3,500 water meters in the city, there have been less than six first-time violators, Killip said.

Other local governments still give their residents a warning, but repeat offenders in some of those places are facing stiffer penalties.

Forsyth County cracked down on violators shortly after state officials enacted the level four drought response. Since Oct. 4, first-time violators are still given a warning, but any repeat violators in Forsyth County are charged with a misdemeanor and must appear in court to face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail. However, fees usually range from $100 to $500, Forsyth County officials said.

"Nobody’s actually been to jail for a watering violation," Jill Pilcher, executive assistant to Forsyth County’s water director, said.

Pilcher said those who go to jail usually go, because they did not show up for their court hearing.

Athens-Clarke County also warns watering ban violators on their first offenses, but if Athenians are caught watering a second time, they are slapped with a $1,000 fine and possible disconnection. Athens officials said they have warned 113 residents since mid-September, and have had no repeat offenders.

It’s not yet necessary for Gainesville to adopt such hefty fines, Shuler said. Jefferson, Forsyth County and Athens-Clarke County are in a more desperate water situation than Gainesville.

"Their actions reflect the severity of the problem their dealing with," Shuler said.

Whether or not Gainesville will adopt bigger penalties down the road will depend on how residents comply with the new ordinances, Shuler said.

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