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Georgia Supreme Court overturns ruling in Winder, Barrow County service dispute

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(The Center Square) — The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled in favor of Winder in its dispute with Barrow County, and city officials said the ruling could have wide-reaching ramifications.

According to the opinion, Barrow County and the cities of Auburn, Bethlehem, Braselton, Carl, Statham and Winder entered an agreement in 1999 under the state’s Services Delivery Strategy Act that took effect in 1997. Officials extended the agreement several times, and it was set to expire on February 28, 2019, prompting negotiations.

While Winder and Barrow County officials resolved most of their 41 “service issues,” two related to county road maintenance and water utility service funding remained. In response, Barrow County sought judicial resolution of the two disputed issues, and the county claimed that the city generated $13 million in profit by overcharging water customers in unincorporated areas of Barrow County it served.

The city and the county filed cross-motions for partial summary judgment, and Winder filed a second motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court denied the city’s motions but granted the county a cross-motion for partial summary judgment for road maintenance funding.

While the Court of Appeals of Georgia affirmed the decisions in a split ruling, the Supreme Court granted Winder’s petition for certiorari.

In a unanimous opinion Justice Carla Wong McMillian penned, the Supreme Court said, “whether the maintenance of county roads primarily benefits the unincorporated area of a county requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances involved and cannot be resolved as a matter of law.”

The court added, “services that primarily benefit the unincorporated area of the county must be funded through the mechanisms delineated in the Act; and that the proceeding set out in the Act for resolution of SDS disputes does not permit the County to challenge whether water rates charged by the City are an illegal tax and whether the City may transfer profits from providing water service into its general fund.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Charlie Bethel wrote that “consideration of the beneficiaries of a transportation system in and through the unincorporated portions of a county would be incomplete without an assessment of the value derived by the municipality from being connected to the larger world.”

Barrow County did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, city officials said the ruling could guide service delivery disputes moving forward.

“This outcome not only vindicates the City’s long-held stance but also sets a precedent for resolving similar disputes across Georgia,” Winder said in a late Tuesday statement. “The City of Winder remains committed to working collaboratively with Barrow County and all stakeholders to implement the Supreme Court’s guidance, ensuring that residents receive high-quality services in the most efficient manner possible.”