A long-lasting dispute over sewer tap fees at the new Newton High School, which is under construction on Crowell Road, was finally settled this week between the Newton County Board of Education and Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
In order to avoid further attorney's fees or litigation, the authority agreed to give the school board a $36,000 credit, which will be applied to future water and sewer bill payments.
The agreement was approved and signed by the authority at its Wednesday meeting; authority attorney Liz Pope said the agreement had already been approved by the board of education.
According to Pope, the main disagreement stemmed from differing views about much the school board should have to pay for sewer tap fees. Water and sewer tap fees are paid when a person or business wants to connect to a water or sewer system for future service.
Pope said the school's capacity, as stated by the architect, is 2,500 students, but the current Newton High School only has around 1,500 students and officials don't expect it to reach capacity for many years.
The school board wanted to pay the sewer tap fee for the 1,500-student level, and then make subsequent payments if needed as capacity grew, according to authority Chairman Jimmy French, but French said the sewer tap fees have always been based on capacity, not current occupancy.
The school board paid the sewer tap fee, which was around $247,000, French said, but the board protested having to pay that fee in an Oct. 4 letter.
French said in a follow-up interview that he had never heard of an instance where the fee would be calculated differently.
"It is what it is. These are set standards, industry standards, based on the drawings their engineers and architects go by," French said in the interview.
He used the example of a builder constructing a four-bedroom house. The sewer tap fee will be determined based on the size and capacity of the home, and wouldn't change if a single widow was living in the home or a family of eight.
French noted that the school system did not dispute the fees for either the Newton College and Career Academy or Flint Hill Elementary School, though he noted that the authority had given the school board a sizable discount on the Flint Hill fees "of the goodness of the our heart."
School officials could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday.
According to the agreement between the two entities, neither side "admits anything and maintains that its respective positions were and are true, valid and founded in applicable law..." However, the school board "does hereby withdraw its protest letter of Oct. 4, 2011."
Though it is not known how much each side spent on attorney's fees, both the authority and school board brought in outside counsel in addition to their regular attorneys.
"I hate that lawyer fees have been paid for this, when it wasn't necessary," French said.
The water tap fee, which was not disputed was in the tens of thousands, French said. In addition, the authority had to put in about $3 million worth of infrastructure to extend water and sewer service to the school property.
Baxter agreement close; customers bad debt an issue
In other news, authority Engineering Director Scott Emmons said the authority was close to reaching an agreement with medical industry Baxter International to provide water and sewer service to the industry's huge complex that is being constructed in Stanton Springs Industrial Park.
The authority will have to build a new wastewater treatment plant to accommodate Baxter's operations, which plan to begin by 2018.
Emmons said an extension of the water lines along Cook Road will be bid out soon; the project is a joint effort by the authority and Oxford.
Also, the authority continues to see some new commercial business at the new Walmart development at the intersection of Brown Bridge and Salem roads as that property's outparcels are being developed.
The authority also approved spending $50,000 to work on furthering the 2050 Plan, which seeks to control growth, creating denser, urban communities while protecting rural land. The money will go toward a joint effort with the county, and likely Covington, to create or improve development, landscaping and watershed protection regulations.
While the county will need to eventually take the lead to develop its ordinances, authority Executive Director Mike Hopkins said he believed the authority would benefit from being involved in those discussions, because the better planned growth is the more the authority is able to predict and limit costs to build infrastructure. Authority board member Keith Ellis said it takes years to put in infrastructure, so better planning could help reduce delays to development in designated areas.
The county is expected to contribute $50,000.
The authority also had a discussion about how to deal with debt racked up by customers who frequently miss paying some bills. A few instances were brought up of people who were so far behind in payments that they may not ever be able to pay off their bills using a payment plan.
One option would be taking a lump sum for part of the debt and then writing the rest of it off. However, the board decided not to take any official action, but rather let Hopkins deal with individual cases as he saw fit.
The authority had 646 cutoffs in August, Hopkins said.