By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Representative Mary Moore (D) from Birmingham says that she has many constituents that can not pay for water because of the rising sewer bill that is combined with Jefferson County water bills. To combat this, the Representative from the City of Birmingham is sponsoring legislation, House Bill 424, which would separate the two bills.
Rep. Mary Moore said that the purpose of this bill is to separate the two bills for Birmingham residents.
The Jefferson County Manager, Tony Petelos (R), was present at the meeting to say that he is opposed to the controversial legislation. “You can’t turn the sewer off.” There is not a valve to turn off the sewage. “If water goes into a house it must come out of the house.”
Petelos explained that cutting the water off when the sewer bill is not paid is in our contract. Petelos explained that we have a duty to collect the money for the sewer debt bond holders. Putting a lien on the house won’t work. Petelos said that if Jefferson County wanted to move forward in the future on separating the water from the sewer bill it has to be negotiated with the sewer bond holders.
Petelos said that Jefferson County is required to have the ability to cut water service off. Give sewer service away would, “Impairs our ability to run, manage, and operate the sewer system.
Representative Mary Moore said that the state passed an amendment that we have to have sewers in 1901. “When I talked with you about this bill you said that you might contact me with things to add to the bill. You never contacted me again.”
Rep. Moore said that the deal to get Jefferson County out of bankruptcy places too much of the burden on the citizens of Birmingham. Citizens in rural/suburban Jefferson County with septic tanks are not under that burden.
She said that her constituents want to see the two bills separated. The County did not take these people’s ability to pay when you came up with your bankruptcy resolution plan.
Rep. Paul DeMarco (R) from Homewood asked, “Has there been any studies done to determine the impact of separating the sewer and the water bills.
Tony Petelos said that he was not aware of one.
The General Manager of the Birmingham Waterworks, Mac Underwood, said, “From our standpoint we have not done a study on how it would affect the sewer customers
Underwood said, “Rep. Moore is absolutely correct. The money (customer’s pay_ goes to the oldest bill,” whether that is water or sewer. “We turn people off on a 60 to 90 day basis.”
Rep. DeMarco said, “My concern is that it would be made up on the backs of the ratepayers.” “I would invite every member of this delegation to read a report written by Joseph Bryant at ‘The Birmingham News.’
Rep. Jim Carns (R) from Vestavia said that the County should look at satellite reading of meters.
Petelos, “You bring up a very good point.” The County has been focused for two years on how to pay down the debts so as to get out of bankruptcy.
Petelos said that Jefferson County’s debt has just been upgraded by Moody’s rating service. “This could hurt our ratings dramatically.”
Rep. Moore said, “The county hasn’t thought about rate payers ever…I got people in my neighborhood out on Daniel Payne that have had their water cut off for years. They buy gallons of water from the Jet Pep… It creates an unhealthy situation…They use those five gallons containers and they do that three to five times a week.”
Rep. John Rogers (D) said, “The sewer bill is going to keep increasing. It is all falling on one or two districts.” The sewer rate will keep climbing until it will be higher than most folks’ mortgages. “It is going to cause the waterworks to lose customers also.”
Underwood said that the sewer bill is running double what the water bill is.
Rep. DeMarco asked, “What percentage has the water rates gone up in the last ten years?”
Underwood said, “About 3 and 3 and half percent per year.”
Rep. Jack Williams (R) asked, “Will this put the county in default.”
Petelos said, “Yes if we don’t have the disconnect ability.”
Rep. Williams asked, “Are you telling the truth?”
Petelos said, “To the best of my knowledge, yes.”
Rep, Moore said, “Yall are going to be there anyway. You are not collecting enough money to service your debt.”
Rep. Roderick “Rod” Scott (D) from Fairfield said, “I actually cosponsored this bill with Ms. Mary, but this issue is more complicated than it seems.” “At some point this body is going to have to work together.
The bond rating is going to be crucial for the county.”
Rep. Moore said, “District one and two are shouldering all of the county’s problems. Nobody has cared about district 1 and 2. The majority of district 3, 4, and 5 have septic tanks.” Moore said that she pulled her legislation off the floor in the last session because the legislators wanted time to talk to Birmingham and Jefferson County. “Here we are years later and they still haven’t talked.” “Do the citizens ever count?” How many years does it take for the water board and the county to meet”
Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans (D) from Birmingham said, “I appreciate Rep Moore’s position…Sometimes we have to pass a bill out of committee to force the two sides to have some discussion because there is a bill out of committee.”
The bill was passed by the Jefferson County House Legislative Delegation with a favorable report on a narrow eight to seven vote. This legislation faces tremendous hurdles in the Alabama legislature.
Jefferson County owes $4.1 billion and has recently come out of a lengthy bankruptcy to restructure their vast indebtedness. Sewer customers are likely to be paying down these debts well past the middle of this century.