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Jeffco Takes Sewer Fee Assistance Plan to Water Board. Some Ask, Is It legal?

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From left: Jefferson County Commissioners Joe Knight Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson following visit to the Birmingham Water Works Board. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., Provided Photo)
By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

The Jefferson County Commission and Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) haven’t been on the same page recently, let alone in the same room—but that changed when Commissioners Lashunda Scales (D-District 1), Joe Knight (R-District 4), and Sheila Tyson (D-District 2) visited the utility recently to talk about the county’s $1.25 million public-service fund for a program to help low-income residential customers pay sewer bills.

The county commission last month adopted a $700 million budget for fiscal year 2020 that included $1,250,000 for sewer fee assistance fund; the fiscal year begins on October 1.

Scales said county officials were looking for a partnership through which the BWWB can provide “water relief in the amount of $1.25 million” to match the county’s amount.

“All we’re asking you to do is to help us help the same customer base by way of our residents. If you would do that in a short and timely manner, that would be greatly appreciated by the commission,” Scales told BWWB members in an August 14 meeting.

Knight, however, said some questions still needed to be answered about the county’s sewer fee assistance fund.

“Who does it? What are the parameters? That’s something that has to be worked out—and, of course, legal?” he said. “Because there are challenges out there already, and we’re hearing you can’t do the [fund], we’re having our legal team assess it fully. What we don’t want to do is start a program, start helping somebody, and then get tied up in court for years and spend money for attorneys.”

County officials believe the fund is legal as long as the money comes from the general fund, which is used to administer county services, and is declared a “public purpose.” Commissioners can earmark money from general fund revenues and give the funds to a nonprofit to help people pay sewer bills, county officials say. The commission would then have to vote on which organization would distribute the money.

What the commission cannot do is take money from sewer revenues, which goes to pay for sewer system operations and sewer system creditors, and use that money for an assistance program, according to county officials.

Another question raised by some county and water officials about the proposed sewer-fee-assistance program: Can the BWWB match the county’s $1.25 million contribution? The utility already has several provisions in place to support its customers, including the Help to Others (H2O) Foundation, administered by the nonprofit Salvation Army-Birmingham area, which helps with paying water and sewer bills; bill-payment plans; and the annual Fix a Leak Week, during which customers receive help detecting water loss.

“We wanted to make an official ask,” Scales said to BWWB members. “For the record, … we are asking the [board] to help us, whether it be through your foundation or however it comes, so we both can provide relief to the same customer base you all serve, and we do as well.”

BWWB Chairman Butch Burbage said the county’s request had to go through its finance committee “in accordance with our normal procedures. … We are in the middle of our budget process, so we need to know as many details or as much detail as you possibly have [in order to] be fully informed about the parameters.”

One potential problem with Scales’s request is that the BWWB does not have a separate general fund similar to that of the Jefferson County Commission, according to sources. In other words, all water system revenues go to operations. Would $1.25 million take money from areas like the utility’s capital-improvement projects?

BWWB Member Brenda Dickerson asked Scales who would manage the county’s program.

“We are in the development stages of this,” Scales said. “We are in the process of solidifying some things. We are starting to get that program running. When I say program, it is not a program as much as we’re saying we’re trying to identify a 501(c)(3). … It’s just a matter of us as a body agreeing to it, and then they will administer.”

Knight also pointed out that the money for the relief fund is in this year’s funding.

“It’s not perpetual,” Knight said. “There’s no commitment for it to be perpetual. It has to be addressed each year at this point.”

Click here to read more stories about the Jefferson County Commission.