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Norcross city water system in limbo

NORCROSS - A financial crisis has Norcross officials considering raising water rates or maybe even selling the city's water and sewer service.

"We're trying to figure out what's the best thing for Norcross," said Mayor Bucky Johnson, who took office in January and decided to tackle one of the city's most complicated issues right away.

While the city owns and maintains its own pipes and metering system, Norcross buys its water from the Gwinnett County water service and sends its sewer to county plants for treatment, according to an agreement reached in the 1970s.

The problem, though, is that the county has set escalating rates for the next several years, and the city charges its 2,000 customers less than what it pays the county for the water. The rates have sent the enterprise water and sewer fund into the red, and the city had to use $1.5 million in tax dollars last year to balance the water and sewer budget.

To investigate the financial situation and lay out options, Johnson created a five-member task force, which is expected to report to the city in the coming weeks.

"It was clear we were heading to a problem," said Councilman Charlie Riehm, a member of the task force. "We're trying to balance the whole thing."

Over the years, the city has not kept up with the infrastructure of pipes, Johnson said, so the need for upgrades makes the financial situation worse. Plus, the city will soon have to pay the county's water and sewer department $11 million - the city share of costly projects to upgrade sewer plants at Crooked Creek and the Yellow River.

"We know our citizens would rather us do the repair, but at what expense?" Johnson said, explaining that the financial situation is unclear until the need for upgrades is assessed. "We know we're going to have to go up on water and sewer (rates)."

Besides, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District required years ago that water services impose conservation rate scales - steeper rates for people who use extra water in the summer. The county system imposed that calculation in 2003.

"We've got to deal with it. If we don't get a handle on it, it's like a dripping faucet. It'll be a loss leader," Johnson said. "We want to be responsible about it."

During the study period, city officials have reached out to the county's water resources department. Acting Director Lynn Smarr said the county is willing to work with Norcross.

"The ball is in their court," she said. "We're here to serve all the citizens of Gwinnett County in the best way possible."

Smarr said Norcross has a unique agreement with the county.

The county seat of Lawrenceville also purchases water from the county and supplements that water - which comes from Lake Lanier - with a city well system. Buford provides and treats water and wastewater for its own residents, while Grayson, Dacula and Duluth have sold their water systems to the county.

Riehm said some people in the city want to save the city's asset, but he said he sees selling the system to the county as a viable option.

"This is a business, and it's a little hard to argue with the structure Gwinnett has in place," he said, noting the county has 100 times more customers than the city. "You've got to believe there is money to be saved. .... Whatever looks the best for the future is what I'm going to vote for."