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More questions than answers on water authority

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More questions than answers on water authority

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Board of Education, county working together on purchasing, paving

DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/EDITOR Representatives from the Jones County Board of Commissioners, City of Gray and the Board of Education discuss the pros and cons of a joint water authority at a quarterly meeting of the entities July 24, h

CITY & COUNTY INFRASTRUCTURE

Representatives of the City of Gray, Jones County Board of Commissioners and the Jones County Board of Education assembled for a quarterly meeting that appeared to have the theme of finding ways to work together.

The July 24 event was facilitated by Alan Childs – who is a member of the Jones County Development Authority and Gray Downtown Development Authority – and Greg Boike and Laura Mathis with the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.

The meeting was held in the community room at Tri-County EMC.

The commissioners were represented by Chairman Chris Weidner and County Administrator Jason Rizner. The City of Gray was represented by Mayor Ed Barbee and Councilman Terry Favors, and the Board of Education by Superintendent Chuck Gibson.

The first agenda item was a recap of the joint meeting April 24, which was the first joint meeting of the entities for several years. Rizner talked about the successful venture of the county and Board of Education working together with LMIG funds to assist with paving of a parking lot at Jones County High School.

The administrator also said School System Director of Operations Carol Miller was helping the county with an upgrade of its purchasing program. Rizner said the upgrade included joining the vendor registry that would allow the county to track bids and notify more vendors of projects.

“Carol has been great with answering questions about purchasing,” he said.

The administrator said another joint project of exploring a template to bid out fuel purchases was underway.

“I think we can work out a framework so we can collaborate,” he said.

Childs asked about progress with city employees joining the county’s wellness program. Barbee said the city had not yet been able to find a grant to help support the program.

Weidner said a walking track and dog park was being constructed at the Government Center. He said the recreation center was not dog friendly.

“This will be a place where dog owners can bring their dogs,” the chairman said.

Rizner said, with the county’s leash law, owners have to keep their dogs on a leash even when hiking at venues such as the Piedmont Wildlife Refuge.

“The dog park will be the only place dogs can run off leash,” he said.

Mathis said the idea of a dog park was huge, and Boike suggested putting signage on Veterans Memorial Parkway to advertise the dog park to attract travelers.

Gibson gave an update about the construction going on within the school system. He started by thanking everyone who attended the open house for the new athletic building at the high school.

“Its basically complete. We’ll be moving the weights in tomorrow,” he said.

The superintendent said the addition of the Jones County College and Career Academy was actually the construction of three buildings at once.

He said the math hall at the high school had been turned into three science labs.

Gibson said the immediate focus, however, was making sure the entrance to JCHS was ready for Aug. 1.

Authority discussion

Boike said the charge to the MGRC at the April meeting was gathering information about water and sewer authorities. He said, during his research, he found authorities could be good in some ways and not in others.

Boike suggested the first step toward a decision of whether an authority would work for Gray and Jones County was to answer questions, including what challenges exist for the water systems and what issues could an authority solve.

The speaker said it was just as important to consider if the existing challenges could be solved without an authority.

Weidner said he felt like Jones County and Gray are really one community, and he felt it would be better to have one source for water and sewer services. He said he understands both sides have questions of who would be in charge.

“One big advantage of having an authority is it would leave elected officials of both governments more time to look at other issues,” he said.

Jones County Development Authority Executive Director William Mathews asked for examples of how a water authority would be structured.

Boike said there were plenty of examples. He said authorities were slightly more common in larger areas.

Mathis said water and sewer issues tend to be about money, and it was important to consider the assets involved.

Weidner asked if communities with authorities had benefited. Boike said some have and others have not.

Boike gave the Sinclair Water Authority and Macon Water Authority, which are on both ends of the spectrum in their complexity as examples of how authorities could be structured.

The speaker said Sinclair is loosely organized, and the MWA is very structured.

Mathis noted that the MWA is sitting on millions of dollars, none of which are available to the Macon-Bibb County government.

Mathews asked if grants were more available to authorities, and Mathis said no.

The director asked if Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds would be available to an authority to use for projects, and Mathis said yes.

Engineer Tim Ingram pointed out that the authority for Henry County is funded by two mills of property taxes.

Boike explained that, when governments enter into an authority, long-term debts stay with each government. That means the customers for the entities would continue to pay the debt service as part of their respective rates.

Mathis said the creation of an authority means elected officials are giving up control, accountability and responsibility.

“It depends on how it’s structured and who appoints the authority members,” she said.

Mathis said an authority is not always an answer to problems. She gave an example of an authority formed to provide sewer service to a city. She said the governments involved could not “play well together.”

“They’ve been fighting since 1991 and still have not gotten one project done,” Mathis said.

Boike said, if now was the time and Gray and Jones County could work together, an authority could be a solution.

“You have a lot to consider, including what happens to staff,” he said.

He explained that authority members could be appointed, or an executive director could be hired.

Mathis said the MGRC could put together more case studies of how water authorities are structured and how well existing authorities are working.

Mathews commented on what he gathered from that evening’s presentation.

“If we want it to work, we can make it work,” he said.

Childs took over at the conclusion of the meeting, and it was decided to keep the meetings quarterly with the open possibility of scheduling an additional meeting if needed.

Weidner suggested each government agency taking a poll of its members to decide if genuine interest in an authority existed before moving forward.

“Everyone needs to be in favor, or it’s not going to work,” he stated.

The date of the next meeting was set for Oct. 23 with an alternate date of Oct. 30.

Boike suggested the topic of the next meeting to be a think tank about economic development.

“This is a good setting to do that,” he said.