By JOHN SCOTT COOPER, Staff Writer
The City of Waycross did an about face — it decided to not shut down the water and sewer service to customers in the Bonneyman Road area of Pierce County that was de-annexed out of the city Wednesday.
To the applause of several dozen members of New Life Assembly of God, a 1,200-member church whose water and sewer was threatened with being cut off, city commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday evening to maintain services in the neighborhood despite preparations that had gone on as late as Tuesday for a shut-down of services.
The Rev. Andy Peacock had spoken for his congregation, pleading that the city not end water and sewer service. At the same time, he thanked the city officials for their “consideration and help” throughout the turmoil initiated by the passing of HB 523.
As they prepared to vote, Commissioner Alvin Nelson summed up the consensus of the commission by saying he was voting to not cut off service for “one reason only, the church.”
Nelson had been one of the most adamant, saying for weeks that the city should discontinue service in response to the the law that was “violating” the city.
The commissioners voted to approve the recommendation by City Manager Raphel Maddox that services be continued but at premium rates to be set within 30 days.
House Bill 523, submitted in the legislature by Rep. Chad Nimmer, passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, took from the city, property annexed into the city in the 1980s. It went into effect Wednesday.
The city had filed for an injunction and had a June 12 hearing in Pierce County Superior Court, asking Judge J. Kelly Brooks to halt or delay implementation of the law and give Waycross more time to respond a change that, as Mayor Clarence Billups phrased it in a called meeting Wednesday, “blindsided” city officials. The judge ruled against Waycross Monday, saying the de-annexation would do no irreparable harm to the city and should go ahead as scheduled.
Wednesday, a large group of New Life members and a few other interested parties attended the called meeting of the commission because it was announced the officials would officially decide how to respond to the judge’s ruling. They sat and waited during an hour-long closed-door executive session in addition to the open meeting for the decision to be rendered.
Two people spoke to the commissioners early in the meeting to try to influence the commissioners’ decision, one of which was Peacock. The other was Bob Smith, a Jesup attorney and chairman of the board of First Southern Bank (formerly the Patterson Bank).
Smith, who emphasized how he was reared in Waycross, was representing the bank which has become the owner of the Bluffs of Satilla subdivision on the Pierce County side of the river bridges. He not only expressed how being without city utilities would negatively impact the sales of properties in the subdivision — and a subsequent loss of tax revenues for Waycross — he offered advice.
Smith said he has been an attorney for many years for Wayne County and the City of Jesup and has been in similar situations. He understood the city’s concern about providing water and sewage treatment for folks who are not paying city taxes. He suggested negotiating with the customers for premium water and sewer rates that would compensate the city for tax revenues.
“We can do this — by that I mean, you can do it to benefit these folks,” Smith said, pointing to the audience, “and the city.”
Peacock said he is happy with the church’s current bill and wishes it didn’t have to be raised. But the situation could be worse, in his estimation.
“I woke up this morning pastoring the same church in a different city,” Peacock said, describing a troubling dilemma for he and many members of his church who are Waycross residents who had been happy to have their church be a part of the city. Still, he thanked city officials for their consideration and help during the time since everyone found out about the new law.
Comments from among the crowd of New Life folks all indicated they felt akin to city officials, blaming Nimmer and whoever requested he draft the de-annexation law for causing the trouble. They seemed willing to try to understand if the city cut off their utilities. They were noticeably happier the water and sewer services were not being disconnected, applauding commissioners as they explained why this decision was made.
“This is all for you,” said Commissioner Marian Solomon-Gaines. “You were caught unawares, like us.”
She thanked the city staff for working hard to present options to the commissioners. And she urged church members to register to vote if they weren’t registered and then vote to let their feelings about the persons responsible be heard, never mentioning anyone by name.
“Evil prevented is evil not done,” quoted Commissioner Norman Davis. He expressed satisfaction that they were “taking the high road, helping the people we serve,” rather than retaliating.
He, too, suggested getting their vindication at the ballot box.
Peacock still expressed being unhappy that the city can no longer provide police and fire protection, a fact confirmed by Maddox. This will negatively affect the church’s insurance rating and payments for insurance.
Answering a question after the meeting, Waycross Fire Chief David Eddins said there is no written mutual aid agreement between the city and Pierce County, who is now in charge of protecting this neighborhood, but the city can send support if Pierce County requests it.
Currie said after the meeting that he would look into filing an appeal to the ruling by Brooks. Whether such an appeal is possible or not, he plans at some point to sue to have HB 523 declared unconstitutional.