By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, the House Committee on County and Municipal Government held a public hearing on House Bill 647 sponsored by Representative Paul DeMarco (R) from Mountain Brook and is being carried by Senator Jabo Waggoner (R) from Vestavia in the Senate.
HB 647 would apply to any municipal water works board which operates in counties beyond the county in which the municipality is principally located. Rep. DeMarco’s bill would require that the county commission of those secondary counties would appoint an additional member to that waterworks board. The bill also would limit board members to just two six-year terms, limit the compensation and expense allowance of the board members, make water works board members covered under the State Ethics Law, and would require that water works boards give public notice and hold a public hearing prior to adopting any rate increase.
Representative Napoleon Bracy (D) from Prichard asked how this bill would affect his community where the Mobile Water works board has recently assumed service for both Prichard and Chickasaw.
Rep. DeMarco said, “I don’t think it will affect you” because those communities are still inside Mobile County.
Rep. Patricia Todd (D) from Birmingham who was a cosponsor of the bill said, “I was for it before I was against it.” Todd said that she changed her position because, “I don’t want to tell a locality or a municipality how to do their business.”
The General Manager of the Leeds Waterworks, Bill Morris, spoke in opposition to the bill. Morris said that it is tough to get good people to serve on the board and objected to the term limits. Morris said that the bill is aimed at the Birmingham Waterworks Board but that it affects the Leeds Waterworks Board as well. Leeds is a town primarily in Jefferson County, but also stretches into Shelby and St. Clair Counties. The Leeds Waterworks also has facilities and customers within the City Limits of Moody. Under the terms of this bill the St. Clair County and Shelby County Commissions would both appoint a board member to the Leeds Waterworks Board.
Blount County Probate Judge and Head of the Blount County Commission Eric Green said, “I am here to speak as a proponent for this bill.” Judge Green said that Blount County does not have a bad relationship with the Birmingham Waterworks Board, but Blount County should have representation on that board.
Judge Green said that 2,400 Blount County residents currently get their water from the Birmingham Waterworks and they expect that number to increase with growth generated by the construction of the Northern Beltline. Two other water authorities also overlap into Blount County: the Joppa Waterworks in Cullman County and another waterworks from Marshall County. Green said that much of Birmingham’s water is coming from Blount County where the Birmingham Waterworks owns Inland Lake. Green said that the Birmingham Waterworks pumps 47 million gallons of water a day out of Blount County.
In response to an assertion by Rep. Todd, Rep. De Marco said that the Birmingham Waterworks Board is an independent water board. “Birmingham does NOT own the water board.”
The Assistant General Manager of Operations and Technical Services for the Birmingham Waterworks Darryl Jones said that the Birmingham Waterworks has 195,000 service connections, but only 300 of those are in Blount County. The Birmingham Waterworks also has 30 in Walker County, about 2000 in St. Clair, and some in Shelby County.
Under the terms of this bill, the Walker, Shelby, St. Clair, and Blount County Commissions would all get to appoint new Birmingham Waterworks Board members.
Jones said that the Birmingham Waterworks makes sure that we have the cleanest water and works hard to meet their responsibilities. Jones said that in addition to the customers that they have in Blount County they also sell water to the Pine Bluff and Remlap water systems in Blount County. Both also buy water from the Oneonta Waterworks.
Jones said that the Birmingham Waterworks Board has 71,000 connections in the City of Birmingham serving an estimated 200,000 people. The 194,000 connections serve an estimated 600,000 people. Jones said that Inland Lake was built in the 1930s. The raw water does not set the price it is the treatment.
Rep. Randall Shedd (R) from Cullman said, “My district is predominately Blount County, but it takes in part of Jefferson County. Because of that I have a voice on the Jefferson County legislative delegation.” Shedd said that the same thing should happen with the water system. “Why would you oppose giving people representation?”
George Singleton from Hoover spoke in support of the bill. He said that he was concerned about water rates because they come down to a cost to the citizens. Singleton said that recent refinancing of warrants have put an additional burden on ratepayers. Singleton said that there have been two raises in less than 12 months. He supports having more open meetings and a larger board. The Birmingham Waterworks Board has just five board members.
The Assistant General Manager of Engineering and Maintenance for the Birmingham Water Works, T.M. “Sonny” Jones said that the Birmingham Waterworks is a very large and complex system that serves 13% of the statem has $one billion in assets, 2 reservoirs, 6 dams, and 4,000 miles of pipe in the ground. Jones said that the Birmingham Waterworks is a very well-run utility that won the 2012 award for excellence in large utilities. Jones said that the staff has devoted their whole soul to their work.
Rep. DeMarco said that the Birmingham Waterworks is a regional water system.
Council woman Kim Rafferty of the City of Birmingham, said that DeMarco did not talk to the Birmingham Waterworks Board or the City of Birmingham when creating this legislation. Rafferty said that representation of ratepayers is not the purpose of the board. The purpose of Board is to manage the assets of the waterworks.
The Chairman of the Birmingham Waterworks Board, Jackie Robinson III said that he was extremely concerned and disappointed in this bill. Robinson said that he recognizes that we need to have better communication with the legislature.
Robinson said that the Board manages one of the premiere waterworks systems in the country. They are one of the top 5 waterworks in the country and they are focused on efficiency and water quality while covering a 700 square mile area. Robinson said that the Board has a laser focus on finances which has resulted in credit rating increases in two of their last three bond issues. “Our bond transactions are on par with the University of Alabama. Our reserves are fully funded.”
Robinson said that the board understands everyone’s concerns about water rates. The average consumer water bill for the Birmingham Waterworks is $44.31 a month while the average in surrounding systems is $55.01. Customers in some area systems average over $100 a month for their water. The rates have been driven by the cost of compliance with massive regulations imposed by the federal government. Robinson said that the board already complies with the Alabama Open Meetings Law and notifies the public at least 30 days before any pay increase. The Board is projecting only 3.19% annual increases going forward.
Chairman Robinson said, “I received $21,000 for my work on the board last year.”
Rep. Dickie Drake (R) from Leeds said this whole bill is about ethics, accountability, and rates.
When questioned about the Board receiving $174,000 each on travel costs last year, Chairman Robinson said that he attends just three conferences a year that generally last 3 or more days and the Board has also traveled to New York City to negotiate the best rates with bond issues and the best ratings with the bond rating companies. Robinson said that the board saved their customers $3.5 million in interest due to their efforts.
Prominent Birmingham area talk radio host Frank Matthews said that he has had problems with the board in the past but the board now has such “Highly intelligent and capable persons on this board now” that he supports the board and opposes this bill.
Rep. Dexter Grimsley (D) from Newville said, “I am almost appalled by such a selfish bill to come before a board.”
Rep. DeMarco said, “I have not seen any reason why the Birmingham Waterworks Board should not come under the ethics board.”
Co-Chairman Randy Wood said that there would be no vote today. The vote will be next Tuesday.