Water Board to Pay $400,000 of the Half-Million for Reservoir Land

The Dade County Commission (left) and Water Authority (right) presided over by Ted Rumley (center), who chairs both.

No real action was taken at Monday's long-awaited joint meeting of the Dade County Commission and the board of directors of the Dade Water Authority, or so called water board, which was called for the purpose of discussing land purchase for a proposed reservoir on Lookout Creek. It was an informal work session, and no votes were taken by either body.

But it was the first forum to bring together the two groups most intimately involved in the controversial project, and the only one in which water board members have discussed their side of the matter within earshot of an increasingly interested and alarmed public; and despite the fact that the meeting kicked off with a 40-minute executive session that excluded them, members of the public seemed grateful to be allowed to participate at all.

"I think there's been a disconnect," said water board member Eddie Cantrell (right), a Baptist minister. "I can see why everybody's confused." Cantrell pointed out that the project was originally presented not just to the public but to the water board itself as a three-way project of Dade County, the city of Trenton and the Dade Water Authority. Somewhere along the line, Trenton had faded out of the picture and now the question seemed to be how the water board and county commission would divide responsibility for the prospective reservoir.

On that subject, the one definite-seeming decision that came out of the Nov. 26 meeting--apparently finalized during the water board executive session called two minutes after proceedings convened at 5 p.m.--was that the water board would cough up $400,000 of the $500,000 price tag of the roughly 65 acres Dade County has optioned from owner Jack Sells for the reservoir. Since the county commission paid $50,000 in earnest money for the option, and an additional $25,000 to extend it, Dade would only have to come up with the remaining $25,000 to satisfy its $100,000 portion of the cost.

As to how the water board will recoup its $400K, that was the other piece of solid information that emerged from Monday night's meeting: "From my impression, we're going to have a rate increase regardless," said Eddie Cantrell.

That must have been one item discussed in the executive, or closed-door, sessions the water board has been calling every month since this summer. During the open part of the meetings, no mention of a hike has ever arisen, and Dade Water Authority manager Doug Anderton (left) had denied any hint of one as lately as the July meeting.

But at the Monday night joint meeting, Anderton matter-of-factly announced that one had been in the stars in any case, reservoir or no reservoir.

"It is time," agreed Sherri Walker (right), the assistant water

company manager whose name is in the hat to replace Anderton when he retires in 2019. She said the water company had raised prices in 2008 and 2013 and was now due for another routine five-year cost-of-living-type bump-up.

The water board had earlier this year secured approval for as much as $450,000 to pay for the reservoir land in case the county commission could not raise enough grant money. (That eventuality has now come to pass: The option expires on Dec. 28, and the only grant the commission could secure was one for $25,000 that Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley applied toward extending the option.) The loan is a low-interest one from GEFA (Georgia Environmental Finance Authority) that Anderton said has a 2.13 interest rate and 15-year repayment period.

Those are the hard-news snippets the meeting produced. The rest consisted of discussions on, complaints about and opining in the general direction of the reservoir and the contract between the county and Jack Sells for the land.

All the water board members expressed themselves satisfied with the 400/100K land cost split, and all of them and all of the county commissioners pronounced themselves in favor of the reservoir project in general--except, that is, outgoing District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith, who declared: "It's been a mess from the git-go."

Smith (left) , who has done it in the past, took the opportunity of the Nov. 26 meeting to reiterate his contention that Rumley had altered particulars of the reservoir deal from the version originally presented to the district commissioners and that he had this year extended the land option unilaterally, without their consent. Smith maintained on Monday his position that Dade should tear up the contract and walk away from the deal.

Of the other three district commissioners, Robert Goff of District 3 urged going ahead with the reservoir: "We need to be proactive," he said, and: "It's time that we made our mind up."

District 4's Allan Bradford said he was in favor of the reservoir but that he'd heard many objections from his constituents about the terms of the contract the county had signed with Jack Sells for the land purchase. District 3's Scottie Pittman said Dade would probably never need the reservoir for drinking water but desperately needed the recreational opportunities it would afford. "I can't find a negative other than the cost associated with it," he said.

There's the rub, pointed out Phillip Hartline, to whose opinion Pittman said he deferred, as Hartline will take Pittman's place on the commission come January. "I think we're paying more than it's worth," said Hartline. He said the contract needed some work.

(Lamar Lowery, who will take over the District 1 seat when Mitchell Smith vacates it in January, was in the audience, but no one asked what he thought of the contract.)

But several others on both boards and in the audience weighed in before the meeting was over. Some sticking points were, again, the price (during discussion of which it emerged that the land had been appraised at $508,000); a stipulation that Jack Sells could continue to use the land for agriculture until the reservoir was actually built--shouldn't he pay rent?; one about arrangements for paying Sells for taking dirt off the property; and another that the county was required to build a fence to separate the reservoir from Sells' remaining property.

"If there's that much problem with the contract," asked Eddie Cantrell, "What can we do?"

Rumley said the sore points could be taken back up with seller Sells. But Dade's man of the law, County Attorney Robin Rogers, stressed that though those points could certainly be addressed, "The option is what it is"--that is, he explained, a signed contract.

And on the subject of legal documents, both Cantrell and fellow water board member Dr. Billy Cantrell said they wanted to see something in writing spelling out the deal between their board and the county commission. Did the water board own the water part of the reservoir property and the county own the land around it? Or if the board had paid 80 percent of the price and the county 20, shouldn't the board own 80 percent of the property? And District 3 Commissioner Pittman put in that the county had to own the land so that prison trusties could mow and maintain it. Attorney Rogers recommended a straight 50/50 split of ownership for now as the easiest, "cleanest" way to share responsibility and liability, but added that that might have to change down the road.

The audience also got a crack at asking questions and making comments: If the county is going to spend half a million dollars, is the reservoir really the most important thing to spend it on? How long will it take after the county buys the land to build the reservoir? How much will it cost? How much of the reservoir land will be underwater? Who's going to spearhead the project now and see it through to fruition?

Audience member Stacy Huffman asked for a ballpark of the total time. "We are much more likely to put our faith in it and trust it if you guys let us know that," she said. Audience member Rex Harrison asked if during the building time the commission would provide citizens a vision of the lake. Phillip Hartline was more specific: "Show me your plan."

Here are some of the answers that emerged, insofar as any were available: Of the 65 or so acres of the Sells land, 48.2 of them will be covered with water. The projected cost of building the reservoir is $5.1 million, said Rumley. The permitting phase of building the reservoir usually take 18 months to two years, he said, during which time the county would scramble for grants. Commissioner Goff had earlier said USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) grants were practically going begging for reservoir projects. "That's not hypothetical that the money's there," he said. "It's there." But no specific time span was named for completion of the project.

Dist. 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford shows a plan for the proposed Dade reservoir.

As for communicating better with the public, Commissioner Pittman said the county was trying to do better in the social media department.

And as for old-fashioned face-to-face communication, audience members gave the pols a certain amount of hell about a project that has baffled and enraged many citizens since it arose without much explanation a year and a half ago,

but they did so in pleasant conversational tones, some even thanking the commissioners and board members for finally coming together and discussing the reservoir in public.

"I'm sorry," said Eddie Cantrell. "I feel like we should had this meeting months ago."

Which is where we must leave it for now, but The Planet will continue duly to report any developments if and as they occur in Dade's ongoing "Great Lake Debate."

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