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Lula reels after Halls flip-flop on sewer deal
City made long-term plans based on commitments from county
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Hall County almost had a new agreement with the city of Lula that got rid of many things it seemed to dislike in the original 2006 agreement. But when county officials had almost everything they wanted, they walked away from an agreement they tried so hard to change.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners voted to suspend negotiations with Lula and build its own sewer treatment plant last week, saying the county had tried to strike a deal with the city for about six months on servicing the industrial park and the Ga. 365 corridor without coming to an agreement.

The city had started with the 2006 agreement, which spelled out the sewer service area for Lula and allowed the county to purchase 100,000 gallons per day of capacity in the plant. But the county said in an April 25 email from Ken Rearden, county public works and utilities director, that it wanted to renegotiate a new contract to take the place of the 2006 agreement.

The final sticking point turned out to be the area of the 2006 service area map that overlaps a small part of the industrial park land. Hall County redrew it.

"(This map) isn't going to work, your drawing's wrong," said Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin, referring to the county's revision of the 2006 map in an early July conversation. "No, this won't work."

Cane Creek was "Exhibit "A" of the 2006 agreement. The county changed it based on the direction of the commission, Rearden said.

"The reason the 2006 map didn't work for this commission on this revised agreement was that map took in the northern portion of the Gateway project," Rearden said. "They wanted to have our full control over the destiny of that Gateway Centre project."

The Gateway Industrial Centre is an industrial park currently under development in North Hall that needs sewer infrastructure. The county promised that it would provide capacity within 36 months after the first tenant of the 518-acre part closed on its property there. The Georgia Poultry Laboratory headquarters initially closed on its 10-acre site there in October.

The Ga. 365 corridor is expected to be a treasure trove of economic development, which attracted the county and city to partner and both hoped to cash in. Lula's wastewater treatment plant needs customers, which the industrial park is expected to provide.

However, Lula sees the changes the county wants in the old agreement as an attempt by the county to reduce financial obligations it previously agreed to.

"We sized our plant and the future expansion of the plant based on this contract with the county and our obligations," Bergin said. "So when you start removing some of that service area the city has already made obligations and actually put money out there."

The 2006 agreement, which spelled out each party's sewer service area and the capacity Hall County would have in the city's plant, said the flow of sewage would go back to the city plant for treatment for the Cane Creek Drainage Basin, as called for in the earlier agreement.

"That's correct, even though that is a Hall County service area," Rearden said. "So the county can take wherever we want."

With no updated contract, the county has to go by what it agreed to, even if commissioners no longer agree with it.

Asked if the county will challenge the eight-year-old agreement, Rearden and County Administrator Randy Knighton declined to answer the question. However, both said that it was Hall County's service area, not Lula's.

State House Bill 489 defined the area as Hall County's despite the agreement it forged with Lula, Knighton said. Asked if the state law superseded the intergovernmental agreement with Lula, Rearden and Knighton declined to answer.

Commissioners were shopping for a sewer service partner in February to provide capacity to the Gateway Industrial Centre currently under development and infrastructure along the Ga. 365 corridor. The board chose to build its own North Hall wastewater treatment plant in November, but decided to revisit the issue to see if a partnership would be faster and cheaper.

In February, the commission, with new members Jeff Stowe and Chairman Richard Mecum, reconsidered the issue and voted to partner with Lula. The commission approved to use Lula's wastewater treatment plant, but to create its own sewer infrastructure from a county-built plant up the Ga. 365 corridor to Ga. 52.

The county considered offers from Lula and Gainesville during the process in February. Lula officials at the time presented a map with its proposal that showed the Lula Sewer Service Area defined by Georgia General Assembly legislation, the service map agreed to by the county and the city in 2006, and the 518-acre industrial park.

After the commission voted to partner with Lula at its Feb. 14 meeting, the city started to amend the 2006 agreement with a draft dated March 28 and another dated April 12. However, Rearden didn't respond to Bergin until April 25, according to emails and other correspondence obtained by The Times.

The April 25 email from Rearden said Knighton, he and County Attorney Bill Blalock believed it was in their best interest to rewrite the existing agreement. The county ultimately requested 13 changes from the 2006 agreement, including offering a new Lula service area map for the Cane Creek Drainage Basin, wanting to take over billing for the 2006 service area and a change in discharge allocations and locations.

A memo from Bergin, dated July 11, outlined the concessions the county wanted Lula to make. Bergin and Lula Mayor Milton Turner said the county declined to make any concessions.

In recent weeks, the county said take it or leave it, Bergin said.

"We sized our plant and the future expansion of the plant based on this contract with the county and our obligations," Bergin said. "So when you start removing some of that service area the city has already made obligations and actually put money out there."

Bergin said the 2006 agreement influenced the city's decision to invest in a plant capable of treating 375,000 millions of gallons of wastewater per day. It based its investment on a future partnership with the county and set up to easily expand capacity.

"The only thing we're interested in is your your delivery and transmission," Bergin said.

Rearden emailed Bergin on July 9 and said the county didn’t want to meet anymore and wanted a signed contract by July 17.

"From direction with commission and administration, they have asked that I present this final document for your council to consider," Rearden wrote. "The county needs to move in another direction should you not execute this agreements as it is by this date."

Bergin emailed Rearden on July 16 and said the Lula City Council’s reaction to the concessions was positive. He wanted more time for the city attorney and engineer to review the contract.

Commissioner Billy Powell made the motion to suspend negotiations with Lula during commission time last week. County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said she worked with Powell the day of the meeting to write up a news release that was released after the meeting. Crumley said she didn't know what action the commission would take, but the news release correctly described the approval of the motion by Powell. The vote was not listed on the agenda.

Powell used some of the same language in the news release during the meeting while making his motion.

In previous votes on this issue that took place in November and February, Powell didn't vote in favor of the county operating its own system, but that changed last week. He did not respond to several calls to his place of business, home and cellphone over a period of three days. He is the only member of the current commission who was in office in 2006.

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