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During Town Hall, Birmingham Water Works Grilled About ‘Affordable Rates’

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As Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson looks on, Birmingham Resident Susan Palmer questions Water Works officials about "affordable rates." (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

Dozens of residents, some with bills showing thousands of dollars in charges, showed up Wednesday night at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club, for a town hall organized by Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson to discuss Birmingham Water Works customer billing issues and a potential a 3.9% rate hike by the utility.

The residents heard from Tyson, William Barnes, President and CEO of the Birmingham Urban League, who served as a moderator, as well as BWW General Manager Michael Johnson while BWWB Directors Lucien B. Blankenship, Tereshia Huffman and George Munchus; Public Relations Manager Rick Jackson and a number of staff members from the utility were present.

Resident Susan Palmer, of Birmingham, questioned whether the BWW was providing the highest quality water possible “at the most affordable rates.”

“We can have all these meetings…but are they actually listening to us? Is the [rate] hike, the increase off the table? No, so what I’m saying…until we gather more than just this roomful of people, they are not going to really react to what we need,” Palmer said.

Palmer also said, “I fought rate hikes three or four years ago and I’m back standing here again. What are y’all gonna do to help the poor people who can’t afford water? You can live without lights, you can live without gas, but you cannot live without water.”

Johnson said comments from the town hall would be taken seriously.

“We’ve taken everything that you’ve said tonight, from the bills, comments about meter reading, we’ve taken note of all that, so that’s something that we will make sure that we go back and act on,” Johnson said.

In a statement released after the meeting Jackson said the utility’s billing system is 100% accurate, with 99% of the BWW’s customers “receiving timely and accurate billing.”

“Our customers are the heart of our mission, including all of our low and moderate-income customers,” Jackson said in the statement.

Throughout the evening town hall, which lasted about one hour and 45 minutes, Johnson stressed the accuracy of the utility’s meter reading, estimations and bills but urged residents to speak with the on-site staff to address any irregularities.

“If you do get an estimated bill, the way the system works, we programmed it to where it’ll adjust that bill in a way that you won’t be overcharged, and every month, we’re running the program, so that it’ll see if you were overcharged for some reason, it’ll automatically adjust it,” Johnson said.

Before the question-and-answer session which took up most of the time, Johnson gave a presentation, which lasted about 25 minutes, suggesting rate increases are unavoidable given the utility’s $125 million operating budget for next fiscal year, which is up about 8% from this year’s budget, he said.

Water Works General Manager Michael Johnson gave a presentation which lasted about 25 minutes. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

“What’s driving our budget is the increase in everything that we use at the utility, and I know you all have witnessed that at the grocery store. Cost drives our budget,” Johnson said.

Barnes urged people to call the Urban League, which through funding from the Jefferson County Commission, has been providing rental and utility assistance and other aid to residents in the county who live outside the city of Birmingham.

In all, 41 BWWB customers had their billing problems resolved at the meeting, leading Tyson to call the event a success, according to AL.com’s The Lede.

“I think if we helped one person it was a success. That means one person that isn’t using their money to pay for their prescription or their grocery money for their water bill. I think it was a success,” Tyson told The Lede.

However, Johnson also said the utility will resume disconnecting customers who haven’t paid in January 2023, after being questioned by Tyson. The utility placed a moratorium on disconnections during the start of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“Then, how are y’all going to get the money,” Tyson asked Johnson.

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when get to it. It’s been over a year since [2020- we disconnected service, and we’re looking at starting in January. We’ve got payment plans. We’ve got deferrals, and we’re looking at January to start [back,]” Johnson responded.

Any customers with billing problems can contact BWW at (205) 244-4000 or online at https://bwwb.org. The Urban League can be reached at (205) 326-0162.