By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
Yesterday, the Alabama Senate unexpectedly took up for discussion an issue that has proved to be one of the most contested points of debate this session – a bill addressing the Birmingham Water Works board.
Although some of the details differ in the House and Senate bills, the thrust of the proposed change is that there is purportedly not enough representation on the Birmingham Water Works board for those who are outside the City of Birmingham, and outside Jefferson County.
Proponents of changes say they consider the water services a tax, and want representation, while opponents point to the fact the Birmingham is providing a service voluntarily and customers are utilizing it voluntarily.
Currently, besides Jefferson, the water board services citizens of Walker, Blount, Shelby, and St.Clair counties. About 98,000 customers are in Jefferson County, and about 18,000 are in the other four counties.
Some GOP members have said, though, that this isn’t just about how many customers there are in these areas.
“It’s also the resources,” Representative Paul Demarco told the Alabama Media Group, referring to the fact the much of the water board’s water supply comes from these counties. “All they’ve simply asked was to have some sort of input or say and knowledge of what’s going on with the resources within their community.”
“A water rate and a water invoice is a tax, and our city and our county has no representation in the taxing authority that levies a tax against our citizens,” said James Sell, a representative of the City of Moody and St.Clair County, recently in a public hearing on the issue, “This bill seeks to provide that level of representation.”
Democratic Representative John Knight took serious exception with Sell’s testimony, pointing to what is a better possibility in his view:
“If you don’t like what’s going on with the Jefferson County board, what prohibits you from having your own water system?”
In addition, the BWW board just announced that they will commission a study on that very possibility: cutting off service outside Jefferson County.
With all this in mind, the leadership in the Senate tried to push through debate and get final passage of the Senate version of the bill – which had been sponsored by Senator Jabo Wagonner of Vestavia Hills.
Senator Rodger Smitherman, who represents the Birmingham area, led the opposition to the bill, filibustering the measure while using a giant map of the Birmingham area as his prop and teaching tool.
“When I came in here earlier and saw all the charts, I thought… haven’t we already reapportioned?” Senator Gerald Dial would later say, “Then I figured out it’s just the water board they’re trying to reapportion.”
In the end, a cloture petition was filed, and debate was set to end, but when a vote was finally taken, leadership fell one vote short of cutting off debate, 20-12. With that, Senator Wagonner agreed to allow the bill to be carried over, and the Senate moved on with other business – passing the Birmingham Water Works fight on until another legislative day.
Republican Senators Bussman and Sanford voted against cutting off debate on the measure using the cloture petition.
Republican Senators Holley, Independent Harri Anne Smith, and Democrat Marc Keahey were present but chose not to vote on the matter.
All other voted were along party lines.