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After 50 years, Water Board votes to end joint billing with Jefferson County

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By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

 

Logo courtesy Facebook
Logo courtesy Facebook

Residents can expect to pay higher sewer and water bills after the Birmingham Water Works Board voted to end joint billing — and collection – with Jefferson County, according to officials.

The Water Board gave the county a one-year notice of the termination of its sewer collection agreement which had been in place since the 1950s.

Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos said the move would lead to a number of ramifications for the utilities and the customers. He also did not rule out litigation.

A Birmingham Water Works board member said water rates could increase by 6 percent.

Petelos said he was “blindsided” by the board’s decision.

“We’ve have a joint contract since the 1950s . . . we’ve had a good partnership with them for over half a century and they didn’t notify us of what their plans were” to cancel, Petelos said. “There was no discussion. Zero discussion on an issue that creates practical, logistical and legal ramifications.”

The county currently pays the Water Works about $4 million annually to handle data collection, billing and enforcement. That money may be made up with higher water rates.

“The general manager gave us some numbers; we would have to go up a rate increase to 6.4 percent,” said Sherry Lewis, Birmingham Water Works Board member, who voted against the resolution to end the agreement.

Petelos said the county will now have to “spend millions of dollars up front to develop the software the hardware, build out the space and hire the employees to do this work.”

Those costs may be passed along to sewer customers. The move could also mean residents would receive separate sewer and water bill. Currently residents receive a single bill with both charges.

‘Untenable rates’

For years, some community activists have called for separating the bills, saying the change is needed to bring relief to customers saddled with unreasonably high sewer bills that also threaten their water service.

Water Works Board Member William Muhammad, who voted with the majority to end the agreement, said, “If these (sewer) bills continue to go up then people will not be able to pay them, and if we by law are forced to cut their water off, then we lose customers because of the actions and the untenable rates that the county has agreed to in bankruptcy.”

The county’s 2013 bankruptcy exit plan calls for 7.89 percent sewer rate increases through 2017 and 3.49 percent afterward for the foreseeable future.

Muhammad said the decision to end joint billing will not increase water rates because the utility would still read meters and charge the county $3 million for the data it collects from residents.

Petelos indicated that the county would not pay for the data.

“We’ll be spending millions of dollars if we go with their plan — which we’re not. They have the infrastructure in place to send out the water bills. We piggy back off them. It just makes sense and we’ve done that for over half a century,” he said.

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