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County, Water Works officials challenged by concerned Jeffco residents

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From left, William Burbage, Chairman of BWWB; Michael Johnson, BWWB general manager; David Denard, Jefferson County Director of Environmental Services; Theo Lawson, Jefferson County attorney; John Henry, Jefferson County chief financial officer and Tony Petelos, Jefferson County Manager and CEO. (Ameera Steward Photo, The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

Hundreds of Jefferson County residents on Monday evening filled a ballroom at Regions Field in downtown Birmingham for a sewer town hall meeting to discuss a number of issues including the county’s 2013 bankruptcy settlement and future of sewer rate increases.

The meeting lasted more than two hours and audience members got a chance to hear from and ask questions of officials with Jefferson County and the Birmingham Water Works (BWW).

Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales, who organized the meeting, said she was encouraged by the turnout and passion from residents.

“We had almost 450 citizens to come out, on a Monday night, it’s still a school night and they showed the officials of the county as well as the Water Works Board that this is a main concern for them . . . and that’s what it’s all about – coming to the meetings and making sure you’re vocal about what your concerns are,” said Scales, who represents District 1.

Also in attendance was Commissioner Sheila Tyson, who represents District 2. Scales and Tyson have said their districts, which cover mostly Birmingham, bear the brunt of the sewer rates in the five district county.

“I believe that the future of this is going to be contingent upon the citizens continuing on to stress the need for change, demanding change, showing up to the meetings and making sure that they are electing people who have their best interests in heart,” Scales said.

Some residents said they didn’t get their questions answered.

Dora Sims, Vice President of Bush Hills Neighborhood Association and Community President for Five Points West, said it was “good information, but a lot of the main questions were not, in my opinion, being answered in the manner of which we sort of expected.”

For example, some wanted to know about a non-user fee for people on septic tanks who benefit from clean water and clean air; and possibly a toll for those coming into Jefferson County from outlying areas.

“If you live in Jefferson County you should be subjected to being able to pay part of that debt, but it’s only limited to districts one and two and we’re not the only district living in Jefferson County . . . why should we be the only ones absorbing the debt? That’s not right,” said Sims.

Tyson said she also felt a lot of questions were not answered.

“There were no solutions . . . people came wanting to know what are they going to do with these high sewer rates, how are they going to give people some type of  relief,” Tyson said.

Lasandra Hall, of Fairfield, said it was heartbreaking to hear from some people who struggle to pay sewer and water bills.

“The meeting overall was good…my heart really went out to the young lady that spoke about her parents not wanting to run water and washing up . . . that’s not good, because when you have to determine whether you’re going to get generic medication…because you have to keep your water going, that’s sanitary, that’s a necessity – – it’s not a want, it’s a need.”

What Officials Had To Say

Residents got a chance to hear from William Burbage, chairman of the BWWB; Michael Johnson, general manager of BWWB; David Denard, director of environmental services for Jefferson County; Theo Lawson, Jefferson County attorney; John Henry, Jefferson County chief financial officer; and Tony Petelos, Jefferson County manager.

Henry acknowledged that some answers left those in the audience dissatisfied.

“Some of the answers we gave, obviously, were not as clear as folks would have liked, because we just don’t know exactly what the future will hold,” the CFO told BirminghamWatch.com. “But what we do know is that … we try every day to make sure that we’re putting this county on the best financial footing possible so if we do have the opportunity to refund in the future, we can get the lowest rate possible.”

The officials gave a history of where their respective entities were and how they got there.

Johnson said the BWWB’S rate increase for 2019 is 3.9 percent and “we just don’t raise rates, it’s a process that we go through and the rate increase is a byproduct of that . . . we have to look at what operation and maintenance expenses are, what our capital budget needs to be, what our payroll funding is and we have a significant debt…that we have to pay.”

Costs include service calls, water treatment, electricity, water testing and old pipes that need to be replaced, he said.

Lawson said the county’s finances were severely impacted with the loss of its occupational tax which generated approximately $600 million between 2000-2009 when it was declared unconstitutional.

That led to the layoff of about 33 percent of the employees; and tornadoes in April 2011 cost another $25million.

Lawson mentioned a host of other issues that led to the county’s financial crisis including corruption and variable rate interest loans that skyrocketed so high the city couldn’t pay the debt.

Henry said the county has since rebounded.

“So we are headed in the right direction…Jefferson County is up off the floor, we’re fighting back, we’re punching hard and we are headed in a good direction . . . [what] we’ve done over the last year is increased our fund balance from $130 million to 154 million,” he said.

“The county is now setting resources aside so that if something were to happen we are positioned to act and act fast,” he said.

Petelos, who was appointed in 2011, nearly three months after the county filed for bankruptcy, said “and I can tell you from those dark days when I came on board until today, we came a long way.”

“If you look at sewer systems throughout the country today, we’re ahead of the game. We’ve already built these facilities, it’s not like we have to go and build another sewage treatment plant, they’re already built, and we have the capacity to take on more customers,” he said.