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Appeals court sides with Sandy Springs over Atlanta in water rate dispute

Sandy Springs may be one step closer to having more say in determining its own water costs and supplies

Sandy Springs and Atlanta have fought over water service charges for more than three years. But after an appeals court's ruling on Monday, the North Fulton city may be one step closer to having more say in determining how much it pays for its water, which it receives from Atlanta.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a federal judge's ruling that had previously stopped Sandy Springs from seeking mediation in a state court on the issue. This decision could eventually lead to decreased surcharges paid by Sandy Springs residents, which in turn would force Atlanta to turn elsewhere for that revenue.

Atlanta city officials have previously said that current sky-high water rates will likely remain the same through at least 2016. Since 2001, though, Atlanta's residential water rates have increased by more than 230 percent, making them some of the most expensive in the country.

The brouhaha between the two cities dates back to 2005, which the AJC has nicely summarized:

An agreement in October 2005 designated Atlanta as the direct retail water service provider for all of unincorporated Fulton County, including the area that incorporated as Sandy Springs just a few months later.

Sandy Springs' creation triggered a provision in Georgia law that can allow new cities to revise service delivery agreements with other counties or cities. Some of the changes sought by Sandy Springs to the service contract could reduce the amount or the price of water it buys from Atlanta.

While Atlanta City Attorney Cathy Hampton didn't agree with the ruling, she felt that the city's arguments would hold even if taken to a state court. She says: "The city of Atlanta remains confident that it will prevail on the substance of all claims in state court."

As part of Monday's ruling, the 11th Circuit remarked: "If the water system revenue declines for any reason, the problem will affect the bond holders and the city of Atlanta...Atlanta may have a problem paying off the bonds that have already been issued, but that will be Atlanta's problem."

Most of the immediate financial consequences that may stem from this ruling, however, would likely be minimal after a judge gave the city a 13-year extension to complete expensive, but necessary upgrades. So even if Atlanta has to absorb potential revenues cuts in the short run, the judge's extension could help alleviate current financial woes. Likewise, there may light at the end of the tunnel for Sandy Springs residents who have long complained about costly water expenses.




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