On Monday, state Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, introduced House Bill 174, which would address how account service water fees are charged. For years, Hall County users have paid double what Gainesville users pay.
The bill would allow county governments to take city governments into arbitration over the fee. Currently, the law only applies to water rates, not fees.
“I’m making it clear and adding a few words where counties can bring before a judge the fees that are arbitrarily set,” Mills said. “This is directly in response to our situation, but it’s also a good statewide policy. No government entity should be setting fees at random to charge citizens.”
Mills has long been a public voice against the fee differential, most notably when he lifted a large picture of his water bill during closing remarks at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues breakfast in December. City officials agreed to make gradual changes, but Mills called for an immediate move toward equality.
“I hope our county will take this (bill) up because it would settle the whole issue,” Mills said. “Any judge is going to look at this and say the fees are arbitrarily set and they have to stop charging it right now. It’s just a crying shame that we have to get a judge to tell a city council what is the right thing to do.”
Gainesville City Council members took a step forward in equalizing the fee last Tuesday, voting unanimously to decrease the monthly bill for county users.
In July, the fee will drop $1.22, bringing the account servicing fee down to $6.44 for county users. City residents currently pay $3.83 for public utilities employees to read their meters.
On July 1, 2012, the fee for county users will drop $1.22 again to $5.22, and by July 2013, all users will pay $4, with county bills moving down another $1.22 and city bills moving up 17 cents.
“The account servicing fee is paid for reading meters, sending bills and servicing accounts, and since the technology of reading meters has changed, it was time to take a look at that fee and adjust it,” Kelly Randall, public utilities director, said Monday. “We’ve dealt with the issue here.”
City officials decided to reduce the fee over time to offset revenue taken in by the fee.
“It’s more than a $1.5 million issue, and we can’t absorb it at one time. We’ve met with (Mills) and explained that it is an amount of money we just can’t throw out the window,” said Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan. “Just like the state, our revenue has been cut, and we have to be able to work this into our budget. The only other way is to go up on rates, and that would be worse. We’re going to do what’s right, so he should do his job in the state House and leave us alone.”
But for Mills, the two-year time line isn’t soon enough.
“It’s not the county residents’ fault that the city needs this money. They shouldn’t be pickpocketing the county residents’ back pocket to try to pay their debt,” Mills said. “To say they’re going to remove it in two years is like saying ‘We understand we’re breaking the law by using an illegal fee, but we can’t afford to stop charging it for two more years,’ and that’s wrong.”
For county officials, the recent vote by City Council members is good enough for now.
“Anytime you can create an equity, that’s good, and I commend them for it,” said Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver. “I would imagine they’ve done the research to know if the fee is right or wrong. We still have Cedar Creek to work through, and that’s a priority. This arbitration isn’t something the county would be getting into anytime soon.”
If the bill doesn’t benefit Hall County directly, Mills hopes it will help other counties throughout the state.
“Just to get the bill introduced, I didn’t even go around and get others to sign it, but I know there are several representatives who have similar issues in their counties,” Mills said. “I still intend on having a conversation with the state Attorney General’s Office about this fee.”