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Over 14 months, Jones Co. used 10 million gallons of Gray's water without paying

A Jones County water pipeline marker in the Highway 18 Recreation Park / Matt Thielke (WGXA)

GRAY, Ga. -- The Jones County Parks and Recreation Department used more than 10 million gallons of water from the City of Gray's water system for more than one year without opening an account to pay for it, according to public documents.

According to documents obtained through open records requests, the water connection occurred during the construction of the Highway 18 Recreation Expansion project. The nearly $3 million project adds six baseball fields, four football fields and one soccer field to the existing park. When it came time to install the water materials for the expanded park, documents show Jones County Commissioners approved a contractor to make the connection to the City of Gray’s system in May 2015.

But for more than a year, leaders in the City of Gray said they didn't know about it.

An open records request with the city shows no account was set up by the county at the time of the connection.

The water meter was not being monitored, meaning no bills were being sent. Gray Mayor Stephen Tingen said he personally found the water meter buried in mud in the park in July 2016, 14 months after the board of commissioners instructed the connection to take place.

Jones County Administrator Jason Rizer wasn't working for the county when this happened, but he said he quickly learned about it when he took the job in the fall 2016 when the first bill was opened in the county office.

“We were starting to try and figure out how that came about,” Rizner said. “That was right when I first started, I don't remember a whole lot of detail beyond that.”

When the water connection was unearthed in July 2016, the city opened a water account for the Jones County Recreation Department. The city sent a bill in September for the unpaid use of 10,212,300 gallons of water, costing $62,535.88.

County Administrator Rizner said some county engineering staff recall city officials being present when the water connection was made in 2015.

“I don't know [who] at the city would've been aware on up the chain, but he recalls someone being there,” he said.

But even if someone from the city was at the park when the connection was made, the city does not have any record of written notice informing them of the connection, or any record of an account being opened.

That's something the Jones County and the City of Gray Service Agreement requires.

Even though Rizner wasn't on staff at the time, he said the lack of written notification isn't surprising, because the two small governments often communicate informally.

“I wouldn't be shocked if it was just discussed in conversation between our water folks and theirs or something along those lines,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised if it was done verbally.”

How is the county now paying off the $62,535,88 bill for 14 months of unpaid water use?

“We talked with the city and they agreed to allow us to pay it off over a period of time and we've been doing that out of our recreation budget," Rizner said.

As of December 2016, Rizner says the county owed the city $68,952.63 in recreation water payments. The county has been paying $7,661.41 per month on top of its regular bill for nine months. That means the Parks Department budget is suffering from the increased payments.

The department budgeted only $6,400 for water and sewer costs in the Highway 18 park. But as of July 2017, records show the county spent $99,809 on water and sewer in that park--15 times more than originally budgeted. That's something the board might need to act on, especially if it impacts the parks department bottom line.

“We haven't yet, but that's something that we will take a look at and see if we need to do a budget amendment later,” Rizner said.

The county just sent the final payment at the end of August, paying off the overdue water bill dating back to 2015.

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