A lawsuit between the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission and Glynn County School Board over as much as $400,000 in fees is heading to the Georgia Supreme Court.
The Georgia Court of Appeals passed the case up the chain, stating in an order handed down Wednesday that it did not have jurisdiction.
“There was a constitutional question involved, so I was surprised it was filed in appeals court at all,” said JWSC legal counsel Charles Dorminy.
According to the appeals court’s order, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that the appeals court’s jurisdiction ends with constitutional issues “that do not involve the application of unquestioned and unambiguous constitutional provisions or challenges to laws previously held to be constitutional against the same attack.”
While the Supreme Court has ruled on a number of cases dealing with which expenses school districts can spend school funds on, it hasn’t ruled on whether or not a school board is exempt from debt service charges for water and sewer utility expenditures, the order states.
“Because the Supreme Court has not addressed the particular constitutional questions presented in this appeal, we cannot say that those issues are unquestioned and unambiguous, and under such circumstances, we lack jurisdiction to consider them. Thus, we hereby transfer this appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia,” the order says.
Because the Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision that answers constitutional questions involved in this case, Dorminy said the court will likely make a tort ruling to clear it up.
School board attorney Andrew Lakin declined to comment.
The utility originally filed the lawsuit in 2015, after the school board stopped paying the debt service portion of its bill. The school system claimed it is prohibited from paying the fee by the state constitution.
A debt service fee is essentially an impact fee, the school system argued in appeals court filings.
“(Debt service) charges are not for the actual water or sewer services used in the schools and buildings operated by the (school) district ... These funds are used to make payments on debt for capital improvements already built by the (utility) commission and/or to build a reserve to be used for similar capital improvements in the future,” the school system’s filing stated.
State law requires the school system to spend money for educational purposes only, including what’s necessary to run public schools, and exempts schools from paying impact fees, the school board stated in court filings.
The utility disputed the claim in its own filing, which stated that an impact fee is a “one-time, project-specific” charge, while the debt service fee is part of the utility’s monthly rate structure.
Ultimately, Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley ruled against the school board in February 2018.
“The court finds that the JWSC charges the district has incurred, including the (debt service) charges, constitute ‘necessary and incidental’ public education expenses authorized under the Georgia Constitution and (state law),” Kelley wrote in his order.
The JWSC alleged the school system owed close to $140,000 when the case was originally filed in 2015. Utility officials said in October that the amount had risen to nearly $400,000 and would continue to rise every month it went unpaid.