The Sandy Springs city attorney alleged at the Oct. 2 City Council meeting that Atlanta has artificially inflated its water rates, contributing to an 81 percent increase, and plans to challenge the rates as part of the city’s ongoing mission to get control of the water system or improve its service. Atlanta may also be using bond funds sought for local water system improvements for other purposes, attorney Dan Lee said.
Lee said Sandy Springs plans to send a letter to Atlanta Oct. 3 requesting the rates be corrected. If that fails, the next step is seeking a legal resolution under a state utility law.
The Atlanta Mayor’s Office did not have immediate comment on the allegations, but has previously said Sandy Springs’ allegations are untrue.
Last month, the City Council tabled a proposal to begin charging Atlanta a water fee, fearing it would backfire. The proposal was not reintroduced at the meeting, but instead council approved a plan to send the city of Atlanta a letter requesting the rates be “corrected.” If a response is not “immediate and appropriate,” Sandy Springs plans to take a legal route to get the rates changed under the state’s Service Delivery Strategy law, which the city believes Atlanta to be violating.
The “alternative resolution” process is “not unlike a lawsuit,” Lee said.
The battle over control of the water system is one of the city’s long-standing issues. The city launched a new priority in January this year to seek improvements to the Atlanta-run water system or sue to seize control of it. Sandy Springs claims the system is aging and leaky.
Since early this year, the city has been asking Atlanta for records to use for an appraisal for the water system, including what rates the city charges Sandy Springs customers. Atlanta was slow to respond to Sandy Springs’ requests, and has so far fulfilled 30 percent of them, Lee said. In Mayor Rusty Paul’s “State of the City” address, he said the city was considering trying to purchase the system from Atlanta.
Lee said the city is considering any options that would improve the service for Sandy Springs residents.
“I think the goal of the council was to gain water reliability,” Lee said. “And if that means better service from Atlanta, Fulton County’s intervention, buying it from Atlanta, having to condemn it and take it from Atlanta to protect the people of Sandy Springs today and going forward, that would be the goal,” he said, listing some of the routes Sandy Springs may take.
The analysis of water system documents is being done by Hartman Consultants, LLC, a specialist in water service studies.
Lee said Atlanta is using the water service system to subsidize increased of wastewater system. Documents Sandy Springs has received show Atlanta is using some of the water revenues improperly, including diverting Watershed Department funds to the city’s general fund, Lee said.
“I hope that the current administration didn’t know about how all this, and will learn about and fix it,” Lee said.
“It wouldn’t be hard job” to stop commingling to funds and correct the rates, he said.
Atlanta charges a 21 percent surcharge to Sandy Springs, which is “erroneous,” Lee said. Atlanta has also inflated the base rate charge by 81 percent between 2010 and 2014, contributing to the water bills being among the highest in country, Lee said.
“It appears that over 15 percent of the current water bill in Sandy Springs is attributable to these bogus charges,” the presentation says.
Lee said Atlanta has not done the required studies to justify the rates.
Atlanta has sought bonds based on proposals for $45 million of water system improvements, but the city has not produced any documents showing improvements that have been done in Sandy Springs, Lee said.
“So they’ve asked the bond market for system improvements they’ve stated are going to occur in Sandy Springs, but, to our knowledge, have not actually been done?” Paul asked, which Lee confirmed.
Paul said he wants to know if Sandy Springs has any standing to challenge future bonds Atlanta may seek for the water system.