State Rep. James Mills sparked lively conversation Thursday as he expressed concern about city of Gainesville water bills.
In his closing remarks at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues breakfast, he toted a large picture of a bill, explaining that county residents pay more than city residents when it comes to the account servicing fee.
"The city residents pay half what I do as a county resident," he said. "That seems arbitrary."
The discussion lasted throughout the day as the Hall County delegation held its annual pre-legislative meetings at Lanier Technical College to hear concerns from local agencies, schools and governments.
"I really think it was inappropriate for him to bring up a local issue. We are working to correct that," Gainesville City Council member George Wangemann said after the breakfast meeting. "James apparently wasn't in the know on that, and I hate that he had to score political points for himself by bringing up a local issue in a state forum."
Later that afternoon, Gainesville officials said the price differential isn't fair and there will be changes after the first of the year.
"The original purpose of the account servicing fee is to pay for operations, and the city and county began discussing this last April," said Kelly Randall, director of public utilities. "It's a $3.7 million issue, and it's not something we can just fix."
The fee, originally created to be based on the distances driven to check meters throughout the county, is now outdated with technology that allows for drive-by and aerial checks.
"We agreed to a differential study with the county, and the consultant said he could make an argument either way," Randall said. "It's a question that the council and commission have been wrestling with. The dynamics of reading meters is changing, and it's an appropriate time to look at this."
Mills pointed out his concern based on state code, which states that a city providing service to residents outside its geographic location cannot "arbitrarily" set a fee to those outside the city limits.
"That's the crux of the matter," he said. "When I receive calls from constituents about it, and I haven't heard anything since the initial meetings, I feel like I need someone to explain how it isn't arbitrary."
Both sides apologized for a breakdown in communication during the past few months.
"We agree that we need to change it and make it fair, and we're getting there," Mayor Ruth Bruner said. "In the next couple of months, we'll come forward with how we can make it more level."
City officials never intended to hurt county residents, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan added.
"It was never on my radar until it was brought to our attention a year ago," he said. "But we can't just cut off that revenue. It has been a work in progress, and we're looking to getting it straightened out after some compromise. It needs to be fair."