Pierce County property owners in the former Waycross annex should learn how much more water and sewer service will cost within a couple of weeks.

Waycross city commissioners agreed to adjust utility rates to out-of-county customers within 30 days as part of a unanimous vote last Wednesday to continue providing water and sewer to a part of Pierce County removed from the city limits July 1 under House Bill 523.

The called meeting came two days after a superior court judge declined a request to block the bill from taking effect. Waycross claimed the new law legally prohibited operating water, sewer and wastewater systems outside the city limits.

Some Waycross officials had threatened to vote to cutoff service to the former annexed tract, straddling U.S. Highway 84 in the Bonneyman Road area, despite doubt from some county leaders about the legality of doing so.

City Manager Raphel Maddox had previously said a rate hike would offset some property tax and business license revenue lost due to de-annexation of the service area from the city limits. He told The Times after the meeting he expected to present new rates to the commission by its July 21 meeting.

Pierce County Commission Chairman Neal Bennett says he glad to see a resolution that keeps water and sewer on.

“I appreciate them serving the citizens.”

Waycross utilities will continue, but the city’s emergency coverage will not. Bennett says the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, E-911 dispatch and county fire department have been briefed on responding to the area, which includes business and residential properties, as well as a church.

Pierce County fire coordinator Leonard Roberts says primary fire protection will come from the Hacklebarney fire station. Fire officials have already conducted some site reviews for planning purposes.

“We’re sitting on ‘go’,” Roberts says.

Property owners are expected to see increases in insurance premiums, however, due to a downgrade in Insurance Services Office (ISO) fire protection ratings in switching from the jurisdiction of the Waycross Fire Department to that of the county.

Church presence a key

reason to continue service

Much of the standing-room-only crowd at last week’s meeting included members of New Life Assembly of God. The church of about 1,200 members comprised from both communities has postponed plans to develop a daycare center due to the uncertainty over utility services.

Senior Pastor Andy Peacock told city commissioners he understood not everyone would be satisfied with any outcome, but implored them to keep water and sewer lines open without a significant increase in the church’s utility bill.

“We just want the best for our community,” he said of the nearly three-month dispute between governments.

Commissioner Alvin Nelson, whose district had included the annexed property, had previously warned he would support ending service shutoff before changing course in the final vote.

“I am going with [the city manager’s] recommendation for one reason and one reason only – for the church,” Nelson said.

An echoing of thank-yous and applause from the crowd followed his declaration. Fellow commissioners mirrored Nelson’s sentiment.

Prior to voting, commissioners also heard from Robert B. Smith, chairman of the board for First Southern Bank. The bank owns just over 40 foreclosed lots in the Bluffs of Satilla subdivision, adjacent to the county line on the Satilla River.

The Waycross native and Jesup resident encouraged the city to consider a premium on utility service to customers outside the city limits in lieu of cutoff. Smith said a similar rate structure was drawn up during his time as a government attorney in Wayne County and has remained for nearly 40 years.

Smith said cutting off water and sewer would be a “big blow” to the bank and development of the property.

City leaders still upset with de-annexation move; vow to continue legal challenge

City officials took turns at the meeting to reiterate dissatisfaction with the lack of communication from Pierce County representatives about the de-annexation bill.

House Bill 523 was sponsored by State Sen. Chad Nimmer of Blackshear and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal March 23. The change was reportedly sought by business owners in Pierce County and had the unofficial support of some county leaders.

Waycross officials said they were “thrown under the bus” and had no idea a proposal to alter city boundaries existed until after the bill was signed. The city filed suit in late May to have the law struck down as unconstitutional.

Commissioner Norman Davis said the move showed a “lack of respect” to the city.

“This city has taken the high road. We could have retaliated … but we’re not going to do that,” he told the crowd.

Commissioner Marian Solomon-Gaines appeared to address Pierce County residents affected by de-annexation – and take aim at Nimmer without mentioning his name – by encouraging them to respond at the ballot box.

“Anyone who would make a move to do what was done to us and almost done to you all – perhaps that person doesn’t really need to be there — because they’re not representing their entire constituency,” Solomon-Gaines told the audience. “They’re only representing one or two people.”

Nimmer’s district technically included the part of Waycross in Pierce County. He has said the process met statutory requirements and was vetted by legal counsel at the state Legislature. At a May 21 city commission meeting, Nimmer said he had intended no adverse effects on those to be removed from the city limits.

City Attorney Rick Currie said Waycross still has a final hearing to challenge the constitutionally of House Bill 523. The law eliminated Waycross city limits annexed across the county line at the request of property owners in Pierce County in the 1980s.

Read more top stories available in the July 8, 2015 edition of The Blackshear Times(Subscribers click here to log in and read the entire paper online.)

• Schools seek to pull plug on cyber-bullying

• Hurricane bridge fix to begin by fall

• IE2