The sewage pump station on Winder Highway should be complete by June, but county officials don’t plan on using it much then.
The county is "mothballing" an agreement it has with Gainesville to operate the pump station until the county can afford to run the station at full capacity.
In the mean time, Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton said a private contractor can run the county’s sewer service for half the cost of having the city maintain it.
County officials signed an agreement with Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department in 2005 that the city utility would oversee the permitting and construction of county sewage facilities, and operate them — specifically the Mulberry Creek pump station under construction on Winder Highway — for about $1.4 million annually.
The county says it currently cannot afford to abide by that agreement. Hall Public Works Director Ken Rearden blames the economy.
When the county commission signed an agreement with the city to send up to 1 million gallons of sewage daily from the Winder Highway pump station to the city’s Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility, county officials were expecting greater growth, and much more sewage, to come in South Hall, Rearden said.
But when the housing market died, so did sewer extensions in that end of the county and the need to pump sewage to the city’s facilities, he said. Rearden said the department has not sold a new sewer tap in South Hall in three months.
"We just are in a bad economic time right now," Rearden said.
"We thought we would be in a lot better position here and that’s why we took off with this big project, you know, to add another million gallons (per day) of (sewage) flow, because of the rapid growth that took place in South Hall County in the early 2000s, and it’s dead right now."
The Spout Springs Water Reclamation Facility can handle 750,000 gallons of sewage daily, and for now South Hall residents only use about 140,000 gallons a day, Rearden said.
The county pays a private contractor $600,000 a year to operate that facility, compared with the $1.4 million it would pay the city to operate its facilities, Rearden said.
Though county officials still are working out the details, they told city utilities director Kelly Randall of the decision last week.
"Our rate structure is so critical that we’re having to take a different approach to the sewer agreements at this time," said Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver. "We think it’s a temporary solution that might change in several years ... everything’s not in stone."
Randall told council members at a planning workshop for his department last weekend that he and Tim Collins met Thursday with Rearden and Finance Director Michaela Thompson, and Rearden told him the county commission decided it could no longer afford to have Gainesville operate its sewer system.
"Frankly, this is another agreement that they’ve backed out on," Randall said.
Randall’s announcement Saturday was followed with a hint of hard feelings from some council members.
"We’re going to need a tractor trailer to carry all those agreements to the compactor," City Councilman Danny Dunagan said.
But Randall said the county’s decision will have a minimum impact on the city utility department’s budget. Most of the money the county would pay the utility for operating the pump station would have been spent operating the county utility. Only about $100,000 would have been actual revenue, he said.
"If we were going to bring in a million dollars, we were going to spend a million," Randall said.
Still, the county’s $30 million investment in the pump station cannot be completely "mothballed," Randall said. To keep the pumps in good condition, the county will have to periodically pump sewage to Flat Creek Wastewater Reclamation Facility. Pump stations, like cars, have to be used, he said.
"They will have to exercise those pumps," Randall said. "They will have to go ahead and get it operational and use them from time to time."
Randall said that with such low sewage flows, odor could also be a problem with the facility. Rearden said county officials still are working out the details of maintaining the "mothballed" pump station and how odor will be controlled.
"If the flows aren’t there in those pump stations, then they definitely will have issues with odors in those large pump stations," Rearden said. "We’re evaluating how those pump stations can, quote, ‘be mothballed’ until we get a larger flow into the system."
The county will leave open the possibility of continuing the agreement with the city when the housing market and sewer growth turns around, Rearden said.
"As long as they’re OK with that, too, " Rearden said. "I mean, it’s got to be a both-party, mutual agreement to continue this relationship like that."