A little more than six weeks after Apalachicola voted to join Florida in its lawsuit against Georgia to secure more water for Apalachicola Bay, city commissioners are finding the state is less than enthusiastic about a partnership.
In his report Tuesday evening, City Attorney Pat Floyd said he is continuing talks with Matt Leopold, general counsel of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, on how best the city can take part in the suit.
Governor Rick Scott announced Oct. 1 that the state had filed a motion before the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking injunctive relief against what he called “Georgia’s unmitigated and unsustainable upstream consumption of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins.”
Floyd has spoken to, and written Leopold, while Mayor Van Johnson has written a letter to the governor, asking that the city’s “suggestions of participation can be implemented quickly” and that the city and state sign a “common interest agreement” along the lines of June 2010 order by the Supreme Court’s Special Master enabling the city of Charlotte to take part in a water rights dispute between the states of North and South Carolina.
So far, the state has been less than eager for a partnership, Floyd said.
“We have had not much response and we’re disappointed in that,” said the city attorney. “Suffice it to say at this point we are working towards being involved and participating as the primary city that has the most to win and the most to lose in this particular matter.
“The state has indicated that they do not want our involvement in it and we’re dealing with that,” said Floyd. “We’re still exploring the different avenues of participation at this time. They have not been real positive in their response. We’re just dealing with that and moving forward.”
In a Sept. 25 letter to Leopold, Floyd shared a draft of such a common interest agreement that would not have the city be a party to the suit, but would enable it to assist the state as a friend of the court. The city’s representatives would be able to attend and take part in hearings and conferences with the Special Master, who has the task of reviewing the state’s motion and deciding whether the Supreme Court should hear the case.
Floyd’s draft takes pains to spell out that the city would be obligated to uphold the confidentiality of all documents and other materials in the case.
He stressed Tuesday that the city is pursuing a seat at the legal table to ensure that “the face of Apalachicola is present in this controversy. That enhances the focus of the court that there is somebody actually involved.”
As Floyd wrote in his latter to Leopold, the mayor “has reiterated that while Georgia is ‘betting the state’ on this litigation and keeping the water and using more of it, the State of Florida is ‘betting the Apalachicola.’”
Johnson downplayed any friction between the city and the state. “We’re not going to fight the state,” he said.
Floyd said that the city remains of the belief that the interests of Apalachicola and Florida “are actually the same, and that there would not be a conflict at all between the two entities.”
Sewer fee approved
The commissioners opened their meeting with the swearing in of Commissioners Brenda Ash and Frank Cook, both of whom were returned to office this year without opposition. Ash was sworn in by her son, Roderick Robinson, while Floyd did the honors for Cook.
Johnson made no changes to any of the commissioners’ job assignments. “Since the voters decided not to make any changes, certainly I’m not going to supersede their will,” he said.
Cook serves as mayor pro tem, as a representative on the Tourist Development Council, and oversees fire and safety, while Ash oversees finances. Commissioner Mitchell Bartley is over water and sewer, and Commissioner Jimmy Elliott is over streets, the cemetery and the docks.
The commissioners unanimously approved a new, state-mandated sewer user fee on customers next year, on top of the annual 3 percent hike in water and sewer rates that are part of the existing law.
The proposal divvies up sewer customers’ share of the roughly $101,000 that the user fee will generate, with that money going towards repayment of a $2 million state revolving loan that was taken out a few years ago to finance improvements to the city’s advanced wastewater treatment system.
Each of the city’s 810 residential sewer customers will pay a fee of $6.50 per month, with the system’s 298 senior citizen customers each paying $3.50 monthly. The city’s 175 commercial customers will pay $12.50 per month.
The new fee remains in place until such time as the commissioners end it, and Ash encouraged city administrators to find a future method for repaying the loan other than keeping this fee permanently in place.
“It suffices to say we need to be working diligently to come up with a plan,” she said.
City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb said “it would be fortunate to have it (the loan) forgiven.
“Initially the plan was to have the loan be invested in (a bank),” she said. “It was supposed to earn enough interest to pay back itself but that didn’t happen. When the economy collapsed, it did not earn interest.”