Leevones Fisher didn’t know the difference between a sewer drain and a storm drain when her six-year term as a commissioner on the board of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System began in 2008.
“Anybody can serve on the board because you’re representing the people,” Fisher said. “I don’t think you have to go to college to serve. It was interesting information. It was educational.”
Fisher said she quickly learned about the system, spending 10 to 20 hours a week working for MAWSS.
“It’s like a part-time job,” she said. “I know for a fact I spent 52 weeks a year for six years dealing with it.”
The MAWSS board not only handles the budget, but also may discipline employees, approve contracts, borrow money and vote on rate adjustments for customers, according Bess Rich, former board commissioner and current city councilwoman.
“It’s very similar to the things you do in the city government,” Rich said. “It’s like a mini-city, only it’s a very specialized service.”
Contracts awarded by the board mainly go toward building and maintaining infrastructure, Rich said, adding that MAWSS was “excellent” at maintaining infrastructure and the board had a practice of evaluating bids for work.
“They are rated by in-house engineers and assigned points for every contract with different things, like did it come in on time, did it come in under budget and were they communicating well,” Rich said. “It’s a scale and it’s wonderful.”
Too much interference
Former Executive Director Malcolm Steeves, who retired in 2013 after nearly 20 years with MAWSS, said the board spends between $75 million and $100 million a year.
“They take the level of control they want,” he said. “They generally look after the purse strings and award contracts.”
Members aren’t supposed to be involved in much else, although sometimes they interfere with the daily operations of the service, Steeves said.
“More often than not, the members would be too involved,” he said. “The involvement of board members is the single biggest complaint of water system directors.”
On multiple occasions, Steeves said board members told him who to hire. Steeves said he believes board members should only be allowed to hire and fire the director.
Fisher said she never saw an instance of board members pressuring the director to hire a certain person, but she did recall an occasion where an employee went over the director’s head and straight to the board instead of dealing with a supervisor.
“I know of it happening once,” Fisher said. “The employee tried to go to a board member in order to break protocol. We didn’t put up with that.”
As far as the board being too involved, Fisher said some people may look at it that way, but she maintains many of the commissioners were just very detail oriented and asked a lot of questions.
Former MAWSS Executive Director Jim Fibbe said the county personnel board handled the initial hiring phase when he was in charge. They would put together a list of candidates and the director and department heads would then interview the candidates. The director would then hire the best candidate.
“There were times when the board would recommend someone on the list, but the way I look at it, hiring was done by the director,” he said.
Fibbe said he and the board had a good working relationship when he was director.
“We always had a professional relationship,” he said. “They didn’t always agree with me, but we kept it on a professional level.”
He added that he didn’t feel board members were too involved in the day-to-day operation of MAWSS.
“They were certainly involved in some issues, but they weren’t here every day and they didn’t have offices here,” Fibbe said.
Steeves said the $1,100-a-month salary and other financial considerations for MAWSS board members could attract the wrong people to serve. Ten to 15 years ago, board pay began increasing, he said.
“In Mobile, they’re paid a lot more than most water boards are paid,” Steeves said. “Some of the motivation for board members is pay, and that didn’t used to be the case.”
Board spokeswoman Barbara Shaw confirmed that commissioners get $1,100 per month, while the board chairman makes $1,300. In comparison, members of Montgomery Water Works and Sanitary Sewer Board get $100 per month, while the chairperson gets $125, according to General Manager Buddy Morgan.
Mobile’s board salaries increased to their current level in 1998, Shaw said.
Steeves said when he started as an engineer for MAWSS in 1994, commissioners’ salaries were set at about $500 a month, “and even that was high.”
“The cost was originally supposed to be for gas and meals they missed,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore.”
Shaw said MAWSS has approximately 89,000 accounts with an average of 2.8 people per account. The Montgomery board serves 85,000 accounts, with about three people per account, Morgan said.
In addition to a salary, Steeves said during his tenure he knew board members who would also rack up travel expenses, which made a board appointment a “coveted” position.
“Some did it for power, money and travel,” Steeves said.
Rich said the fact that it’s a paid position does have an effect on its attractiveness, but at the same time, the importance of the service dictates that only those serious about serving should be appointed. She used her appointee, Vice Chairwoman Sheri Weber, as an example.
“The person I appointed is someone I know very well and I would personally want that because of the service they’re producing,” she said. “It’s such an essential service that they have to be very serious about the appointment.”
Councilman Joel Daves said it’s important to nominate members to the board that have the best interest of the city in mind. He said that while the council should show deference to nominees their colleagues want to appoint, there is a duty to appoint members who have a certain skillset.
“We need to look at people who’ve run businesses, engineers, accountants,” Daves said. “People who have the skills to know what’s going on.”
Fibbe said he didn’t give board member salaries much thought when he was director.
“It’s a pretty demanding board to be on, as far as activity,” he said. “It’s pretty complex with the water side and wastewater side.”
Rich added that board members, in addition to attending meetings twice a month, must also attend committee meetings and chair a committee during their terms.
“They have to go to sometimes weekly meetings, especially if they’re getting ready to do bonds, or look at their rates and look at the contracts and whatnot,” she said. “It’s something where it’s not just those meetings they’re going to have to devote time to.”
The committees include growth and development, human resources, finance, insurance, property and consultant/contractor complaint review.
Rich said the amount of time she worked for MAWSS depended on the time of year.
“It really depended on what cycle you were in what they were doing, what committees you were assigned to and what the issues were,” Rich said.
Fisher said she had to get a separate email account just to deal with correspondence dealing with the water board because she said she had more than 15,000 messages about her work on the board.
Politics sometimes factor into the job for board members, like the recent fight over the appointment of former mayor Sam Jones to replace Fisher on the board. The one-term commissioner said she doesn’t feel her support of Mayor Sandy Stimpson had anything to do with Councilman Fred Richardson appointing Jones to replace her.
“It was not revealed to me that was the reason,” Fisher said. “He explained that he and Sam Jones were good friends and that Sam wanted to be on the board.”
Fisher said she was relieved when she found out she would be replaced, adding that she never asked to be on the board and never asked to be replaced.
“The first thing I thought was hallelujah,” Fisher said. “Every day of my life I thought about MAWSS.”
Nevertheless, a political fight over Richardson’s appointment ensued. District 1 representative Richardson saw his appointment blocked twice as the council spent weeks deadlocked on the decision.
The stalemate resulted in failure to approve other measures and remained in place until current Mayor Sandy Stimpson came out in support of the appointment, which changed two council votes and resulted in a 5-1 vote to approve the appointment. Only Rich voted against the Jones appointment. Councilman John Williams was absent for the vote.
Jones is the newest member of the board. He joins current commissioners, Chairman Maynard V. Odom, Vice-Chair Sheri Weber, Secretary-Treasurer Tommy Tyrell, James Bell, James Laier and Barbara Drummond.
Daves, Rich and Williams each said they have good communication with their board appointments.
Council appointments aren’t district-based, Shaw said, because until recently MAWSS only had five commissioners on the board. It wasn’t until 2008 that councilors in districts 1 and 7 had an appointment to the board, Shaw said.
Rich said she remembers councilors drawing straws at one point to make MAWSS board appointments.
Board members vote on rate increases for customers and approve the utility’s budget each year, Fibbe said.
“Normally you adjust rates to generate enough money to operate and meet budget demands,” he said.
Often, MAWSS would predict revenues and then look at capital projects and maintenance issues before determining whether a rate adjustment was needed. The rate increase was then advertised to give customers an opportunity to comment before a vote, Fibbe said.
MAWSS department heads and the finance department compile the overall budget before the director reviews it and “gets a complete budget to the board,” Fibbe said.
The average bill for a residential MAWSS customer runs about $50 a month for 5,000 gallons, Shaw wrote in an email. That breaks down to about $16.05 for water, $34.90 for sewer and 56 cents in tax.
Prichard Water takeover
A countywide referendum allowing MAWSS to takeover the assets of the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board passed by a slim margin on Tuesday, June 3. MAWSS has yet to decide on its next step on what is an “issue of hope,” Fisher said, for the people of Prichard.
The Trinity Gardens resident said she has no idea what MAWSS might do in response to the vote.
“They’re hoping water bills will go down,” Fisher said. “They’re hoping for this and that.”
Steeves said if it’s done correctly, merging the two systems “would be the best for all citizens.” He said the takeover would result in less overhead.
Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam warned before the vote that a decision by county voters to allow the takeover would lead to the insolvency of his city. Ephriam has said the city would lose $1.3 million in municipal fees tacked onto water bills. Proponents of the legislation said MAWSS would continue collecting these fees for Prichard. Ephriam and others have said MAWSS isn’t obligated to collect them.
According to the legislation, MAWSS has 90 days from the June 3 date of the election to draft and pass a resolution accepting the Prichard system.
Shaw said she doesn’t expect a decision until MAWSS gets a copy of a $34 million contract with Severn Trent the Prichard board signed just before the referendum passed a countywide vote.
“We have repeatedly asked for a copy, but have not yet received it,” she said.