Formal talks between Pierce County and Waycross may be on the horizon after months of legal wrangling over a disputed de-annexation.

County Commission Chairman Neal Bennett says the county may reach out to Waycross officials in the near future, after a Superior Court judge last Wednesday granted an injunction to temporarily block the city from disconnecting water and sewer services to Pierce County customers. Judge Kelly Brooks ordered the utilities stay on in the former city annex in the Bonneyman Road area along U.S. Highway 84 “until final resolution of the matters in controversy.”

Brooks agreed the county – and injunction intervenors, homeowner Kelly Thrift and business Coastal Forklift and Hydraulic – would “suffer irreparable injury” from a utility shutoff, while stating the status quo does not harm the city or the public.

Prior to the ruling, county and city officials said they are willing to negotiate a resolution, a stance both sides reaffirmed Monday.

“We’re still waiting on Pierce County to meet,” says Waycross City Manager Raphel Maddox.

Meanwhile, the city will push forward with its legal challenge of the state law that removed its boundaries from Pierce County as of July 1. Maddox also says the Waycross City Commission’s July vote to double water and sewer rates and assess new annual user fees to non-city customers will likely be revisited at the Waycross City Commission’s meeting next Tuesday, Sept. 15.

Bennett says he plans for county leadership to review the matter before contacting Waycross about a possible meeting.

“I think they want to talk and we probably need to talk.”

Last week’s court order is the latest development in a series of legal counter moves that followed state lawmakers’ approval of House Bill 523 in March, removing Waycross’ roughly 30-year-old annex from Pierce County as of July 1. The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Chad Nimmer of Blackshear, had support from Pierce County elected leaders and business owners who believe removing the extra jurisdiction would help existing and future businesses.

Nimmer has recently pledged to introduce “any legislation needed” to resolve the matter, as part of any joint agreement by the governments.

Waycross is challenging the de-annexation bill’s constitutionality through a May lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court. Judge Brooks denied the city’s request to delay the law’s implementation. The city is currently appealing that ruling.

After city commissioners decided to increase charges for Pierce County customers, the county filed a counter claim in August, calling the increases arbitrary. The city voted less than a week later to disconnect all water and sewer service to Pierce County, citing language in a 1999 Service Delivery Strategy agreement stating Waycross would not provide services beyond its city limits.

The county countered the city was wrong about its interpretation of the contract and argued at a hearing last month that cutting off utilities would hurt revenues from property taxes and business licenses. Thrift and Coastal Forklift joined the injunction request, claiming a shutoff would force them to relocate and burden them financially.

Waycross leadership has decried inadequate public notice about the change and a lack of communication from Pierce County officials. A contingent of Waycross officials spoke before members of a Georgia House of Representatives special committee last Monday about impact of the situation as part of a hearing on annexation, de-annexation and incorporation issues statewide.

Read more top stories available in the September 9, 2015 edition of The Blackshear Times(Subscribers click here to log in and read the entire paper online.)

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