MARY ANN ANDERSON
During last Friday’s rare joint meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council and Jeff Davis County Commissioners, Mayor Bayne Stone, as lead spokesman for the group, spurred all of the officials to begin the process of developing a collaborative and coordinated plan to add to and refurbish the city’s outdated and antiquated water system.
Stone said that the $5.087 million project would likely require a commitment from both the city and county. The funding will come from three sources, including $460,000 in grants from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority State Revolving Fund (GEFA-SRF), another $750,000 in a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and a $3.877 million low-interest loan from GEFA-SRF.
And it is that loan that brought the two governments together.
After County Commission Chairman Ricky Crosby called the meeting to order, Stone led off the hour-long meeting by introducing Kenny Green of Turnipseed Engineers of Augusta, the lead engineers in obtaining the funding for the project, to give an overall view of what needs to be done.
Green spoke to the almost filled-to-capacity room, explaining that over the past couple of years Turnipseed has delved into the water system infrastructure, much of it built prior to 1973, to determine its immediate and long-term needs.
Among the items is a new thousand-gallons-per-minute water supply well, a half-million gallon elevated water storage tank to complement the city’s three other water tanks, water interconnections with 12-inch waterlines, and a complete water distribution system rehabilitation, all adding to $5.087 million.
“There are a lot of other needs in the city, too,” Green pointed out, including replacing fire hydrants and water mains. He and Stone added that for fire suppression the rate of water flow once the system is in place will increase from about 500 gallons per minute to more than 2,000 gallons a minute.
They also both cited the major five-alarm fire at Beasley Forest Products’ Thompson Hardwoods site in June of 2014. That fire required 38 separate fire departments from surrounding counties, helicopter water drops, and a large tanker shuttle.
That’s when Stone made his next move and explained the core of the meeting.
“In order to provide this for our industry and our citizens to get ourselves in good shape, this is the project to go into,” the mayor said. “This will put us in the water business in Hazlehurst, and it will suffice our citizenry.”
Stone then explained that the payment on the loan is approximately $235,000 a year for 20 years. The offer he made to the county commissioners was that the city pay $135,000, with the county picking up the remainder payment of $100,000.
“From there,” he spoke directly to the commissioners, “you’ll have to make up your mind of what you’re going to do. You’re going to have to get in the business of delivering water.”
That’s when Blackburn District Commissioner Hank Hobbs asked the city about the “return” on the county’s investment of paying the $100,000 a year, with Stone deferring the answer to Phil Jarrell of Beasley, whose operations are in unincorporated areas of Jeff Davis County yet served by city water lines.
Jarrell said Beasley has taken on an investment of more than $50 million to expand the capacity of the sawmill.
“That’s more trucks on the road, more people, more industry,” he said. “It’s an investment that you’re making but it’s actually an investment for the future of this community … Fire suppression was not as big an issue up until the point that we put $50 million on the table. We’re hoping that you will see fit that it’s an important investment to the future of this community.”
That’s when Ward Four Councilman John Bloodworth added, “We’re two governments, but we’re really one purpose and that’s to serve our citizens and our businesses in the community … We need to do this, and the city can’t do it on its own. But we both have a responsibility to our citizens and our businesses to keep things moving.”
When Crosby asked what would happen if the county couldn’t pay its part, Stone’s answer was quick, “We haven’t failed on a loan yet, and we’re not going to fail on this. If you take the loan, we’ll be grateful for you, and if you fall down, we’ll pick it up.”
Charles Harrell, the city’s building inspector and code enforcer, then explained that 28 percent of the city’s water customers are outside of the city limits, and they, too, in his words, “want fire protection.”
Green reiterated Harrell’s position, saying that the project isn’t just for industries like Beasley, adding that the project would affect about 6,000 city and county water customers.
“Based on that number of people,” Green went on, “the Industry standards say you need another well, you need another tank, and you need another water line. Everyone needs to have adequate water.”
When Whitehead County Commissioner Brad Crews asked Stone how long the city had been working on the project, and with Stone telling him two years, he chastised the mayor, “You’ve been working on this project for two years, and I’ve known about it for two weeks. Now you’re asking for our decision in two weeks that you’ve known about for two years?”
Crews also said that the county commission would need time to plan and budget for the project, adding, “I think we can do a lot more if we work together.”
That’s when Public Works Director Carl Leggett pointed out that the first payment on the loan wouldn’t be due for two years, which seemed to almost bring a collective sigh of relief from both city and county officials.
Green, Stone, and former Ward Two Councilman Tommy Purser each stated that the local ISO rating would improve, which in turn could lower a homeowner’s insurance costs.
Ocmulgee County Commissioner Vann Wooten then asked Stone about the city’s deadline to get the county involved in the payment process. The mayor told him the paperwork was on his desk for signatures, saying, “We need an answer as soon as you can.”
Bloodworth then stated he thought the joint project was a “no-brainer,” with Green stepping in again and explaining that “time-consuming work” has to be done, so time is of the essence.
With the meeting winding down, Stone asked for a motion to “instruct the engineering firm” to proceed with an alternate plan “if we can’t get the county involved … if they don’t play ball.” Bloodworth made the motion with Ward One Councilman Dywane Johnson seconding.
But Ward Two Councilman John Ramay and Ward Three Councilman Eric Griffin both countered and said they didn’t think the project needed to be modified as yet, not until the county makes a decision about whether to “play ball.” Bloodworth then withdrew his motion.
Earlier in the meeting, part of Stone’s plea to get the county involved was that other city water and sewer loans would be going off the books, which would free up $135,000 the city could use to pay on the estimated $235,000.
Purser focused on that statement, reiterating an early statement by Hobbs, “The city’s water customers were paying a rate to retire those debts that are going off. The theory should be that rates should go back down.”
He added that the city will use that $135,000 it is already paying with no new money invested on the new project, yet the county is being asked to pay $100,000 of new money.
“It seems like you would at least go half way with both the city and county investing $50,000 of new money,” he said.
That’s when the mayor added that while the high-dollar project would make a difference in the city’s infrastructure, its ISO ratings, and its economic development, other work still needs to be done.
“This is a small portion of what we’ve got to do to handle and keep the city infrastructure vibrant and in good shape,” he concluded, and then adjourned the city portion of the meeting.
Crews then asked the commissioners for a motion to give the city its answer within 30 days, with Hobbs seconding. The motion passed unanimously.