The Georgia Supreme Court delivered its judgment Monday in a lawsuit between Glynn County Schools and the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission, holding the school system accountable for over half a million dollars in unpaid fees.
It all started in 2014 when the school board determined that it could not pay the debt service portion of its water and sewer bill. The JWSC took the school board to court in 2015, over what at the time was roughly $140,000 in unpaid debt service fees.
Since then, however, JWSC officials say that amount has risen to $516,070. Utility legal counsel Charles Dorminy said the two parties will have to go before a superior court judge to have the total, final amount owed determined, however.
Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley ruled in the utility’s favor in 2018. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals passed the case up the chain to the Georgia Supreme Court because it involved a constitutional question.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, delivered Monday, states simply that “The judgment of the lower court is affirmed without opinion, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 59.”
According to Rule 59, the high court may affirm any civil case without rendering its own opinion when it determines “the evidence supports the judgment; no harmful error of law, properly raised and requiring reversal, appears or; the judgment of the court below adequately explains the decision and an opinion would have no precedential value.”
“While it was our understanding that we were legally prohibited from paying the debt service portion of the utility bill, in respecting the Supreme Court’s ruling we will honor the decision made and work cooperatively with the Joint Water and Sewer Commission to resolve this matter,” Glynn County Schools Superintendent Virgil Cole said in a statement provided Monday.
Exactly how the fees will be settled is still under discussion, Dorminy said in an email Monday.
“That’s yet to be determined,” Dorminy said. “Both the JWSC and the (Glynn County School Board) meet Thursday. There are several options, including the parties just coming to an agreement on the figure to be paid … This has never been a contentious suit. The facts were stipulated to, the parties agreed on the procedural aspects throughout the case. We just had to have a judge interpret the law for us so we would know whether this charge had to be paid. The school board attorneys, and the school board as a whole, have been great to work with and I don’t expect any changes in that moving forward.”
Attorneys for the JWSC and school district argued their cases before the Supreme Court in June.
Phillip Hartley, representing Glynn County Schools, said the Georgia Constitution requires all school expenditures go to “educational purposes,” and argued that the school board believed debt service fee did not fall within that category. Only charges based on actual water and sewer usage could be considered such, he said, and the utility’s debt service fee is not charged based on actual usage.
In addition, the school board couldn’t pay the JWSC’s debt service fee because the Georgia Constitution prohibits the school board from carrying over debt from year to year, he said in June. If it can’t take on debt for longer than a year, it can’t pay for other public agencies’ long-term debt either.
Much of Hartley’s defense also relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in Dekalb County School District v. Dekalb County.
Multiple Supreme Court justices disagreed with his interpretation of the Dekalb County case, however, and all nine justices agreed with Monday’s judgment.
Steve Bristol, the attorney representing the JWSC before the Supreme Court, argued that the utility’s rate structure is set by its establishing legislation and can only be changed with approval from both the city of Brunswick and Glynn County, among other things.