After a lengthy and sometimes sharp-edged debate, Effingham County commissioners agreed in a divided vote to repay another current commissioner’s company for installing a generator — but the question is when to do it.
Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, moved to pay the bill after they formulate a process on how to handle outstanding issues with developers.
"We will make arrangements to pay this bill in accordance to whatever is our decision-making process," said Chairman Dusty Zeigler, who offered the motion eventually passed.
Commissioner Reggie Loper had moved to pay the bill — $49,476.86 to DM Jones Construction for a generator needed to operate a sewage system pump station — immediately. But that motion, for which he and Commissioner Phil Kieffer voted, was defeated 3-2.
"Paying the bill is the right thing to do," Kieffer said.
Commissioners had retained Jon Hart, the county attorney for Chatham County, to assess the validity of the contracts. Hart said the bill for the generator was valid but it was up to the commissioners to determine when they should pay it.
"He said, yeah, you owe the money," Loper said of Hart’s findings. "So let’s write her a check."
"It’s important to remember that the bill is a valid bill," said Commissioner Steve Mason. "When I asked directly if it was due, he said it was due whenever we decided to pay it."
Added Commissioner Bob Brantley: "I think his term was the board had a wide range of discretion."
Brantley and Mason voted along with Zeigler in favor of the motion that passed.
Mason initially attempted to craft a motion that would lead to a comprehensive plan in resolving outstanding contracts with developments for system improvement reimbursement.
But doing so would have excluded Commissioner Vera Jones, vice president of DM Jones Construction, from any discussions. Jones recused herself as the issue of the generator bill was broached.
"Instead of attacking them one at a time and going off like an unguided missile, let’s have a game plan," Zeigler said. "That’s what Commissioner Mason tried to do."
Jones also reaffirmed her position that the county not only failed to abide by its contracts but continued to change the contracts to provide water and sewer service to her company’s developments without notice.
"They were leaving the citizens out to dry," she said. "Our actions saved the county from a large number of lawsuits."
Jones charges that the county changed the proposed gravity sewer to a force main and put that in her subdivision, requiring her company to build a system improvement that would serve not only her two subdivisions, Buckingham and South Effingham Plantation, but other projects in the area.
"We had no choice but to sign a newly-required agreement that the county would pay us back over time as fees were collected," Jones said.
Jones also said she made several requests to be placed on the agenda to address the county commissioners back in 2006 but was rebuffed.
"I believe this is a violation of my Constitutional right of due process," she said. "I wanted the public to be aware of what was taking place."
Others who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting also implored commissioners to pay the bill.
"There were significant investments put in by companies," said Tim Mathews. "Developers aren’t bad; road maintenance companies aren’t bad. We have to look at the pure integrity of doing the right thing. You were presented a valid bill. Start making things right. Draw the line and do the right thing. For heaven’s sake, pay the bill."
Added Charlie Kea: "How can you collect building permits from builders and not have the infrastructure and the sewer in place that’s required? Shame on all of you."
Jones estimated that her company has put in, "out of pocket," she said, roads and water and sewer improvements that have added to the county’s assets worth nearly $3.5 million.
"We have given our fair share," she said. "This is a breach of our trust and the public’s trust. Can county employees hire engineers to redraw the size of a fire station after we vote, regardless of the cost? The citizens had better hope not. Yet that’s what happened to us.
"They simply want a mulligan. We honored our agreements and went above and beyond in working with the county. I have never seen such a callous disregard for the harm caused to others where confusing and false information is provided in order to avoid taking responsibility for those actions."
Jones also said she was refraining from filing suit against the county. Filing a suit, she said, was the only way to get the contract declared null and void.
"I’ve done everything possible to avoid litigation," she said. "I’m not a litigious person. The county has enough lawsuits to deal with."
Mired in water-sewer system
Former commissioner Hubert Sapp asked if enough tap fees had been collected to warrant paying the bill.
"The problem is, are you paying it out of tap fees or are you paying it out of general fund dollars?" he asked. "The taxpayers are the ones funding that payment. If it’s paid today, the taxpayers will be the ones funding that day."
He also said commissioners were told, when the county water and system was put in place, that it would pay for itself and would be self-sufficient.
"If I want water and sewer, is it available? I’m paying for it," he said. "A lot of people are paying for water and sewer that do no get the benefit of it. When it was brought up to implement water and sewer, the public was guaranteed it would be self-sufficient, that it would not be a burden on the taxpayers. And here we are today, $11 million of tax dollars invested in it. And wanting to spend more."
The county’s general fund has loaned the water and sewer fund $11.5 million, which has been used to back a variety of elements, from infrastructure to engineering for the Heritage and Grandview tracts, according to county finance director Joanna Wright.
"We paid for a lot of different pieces out of that total," she said.
Mason said that the county and the developers entered into the water-sewer installation in good faith.
"Things were rolling," he said. "It appeared as if the train was not going to stop, that it was going to keep right on running. Developers were in the same position. They thought everything they did was going to get a quick return, because lots were selling like crazy. Everybody got caught when this thing turned down.
"What we’ve got now, I don’t think anybody could have predicted this. The shortfall the county has to deal with is understandable. I don’t think anything was wrong with the decision to put in water and sewer."
Mason said Hart told him that it was "a perfect storm" that led to the situation the county has now.
Jones noted that a few vocal opponents, in particular Frank Arden, had warned the county about what could happen with the water-sewer system and what burden might fall upon the taxpayers.
"They were not told the truth. And now it’s time to tell the truth," she said. "They were always going to have to pay something."