Lumped in on the June 3 ballot with guys who want to keep Obama out of the Public Service Commission, and people who want to keep Obama out of the State Legislature and Obama out of your schools, there is the question of whether the Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board should be dissolved and its roughly $50 million in assets handed over to Mobile Area Water and Sewer Systems.
It’s probably a decision not many of us have given much thought, and outside of the people living in Prichard it probably seems like it won’t affect any of the rest of us either. But depending upon who you’re listening to, this referendum could have serious impact.
I’ll admit to not having followed the issue much until recently. Like many I had the idea Prichard’s Water Board was corrupt and mismanaging things, citizens were dealing with ridiculously high water bills and the whole system was run down and broken. They may even have had Obama running a sewage treatment plant for all I know. So overall, my general feeling about Prichard’s water system is that it needed someone else to run it.
But members of the PWWS came to our office recently to try to correct what they say is an unfair image. They explained how they’d managed to get the system’s mangled finances under control, raised the bond rating, gotten their infrastructure in good shape and were delivering some of the state’s lowest-priced water.
That was a 180 from what we’d been hearing. Even people like State Rep. Napoleon Bracy who co-sponsored the bill that would hand PWWS over to MAWSS, still claims the board is wildly overpaid and hurting Prichard citizens with high-as-a-kite rates. And as an ex-member of the water board he should know, right?
Both Bracy and state Sen. Vivian Figures want to see PWWS go to MAWSS, and they represent Prichard, so it’s hard to figure them doing something that would ultimately land in their laps politically. But still, there are things that make you go “hmmm?” about the deal.
A MAWSS official bluntly told me the main reason they want Prichard Water is because it will bring more customers while also allowing them to eventually start looking to expand in the fast-growing Saraland area. It also seems water utilities all over the state are looking at this situation in terms of how it might affect their own expansionist wishes, so this could be a watershed (pun intended!) event.
What about those Prichard Water Board members raking it in personally? They told us they make a little over $700 a month, which is certainly lower than the compensation MAWSS’ board members get — $1,100 a month. It’s also lower than what the board members at the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection District make, and the amount of shenanigans going on out there far outstrip anything I’ve heard coming out of Prichard. So that argument doesn’t hold much … OK, I’ll stop.
One of the more shocking things the PWWS board members told us was the dissolution of their utility would likely destabilize Prichard to the point the city will dissolve.
PWWS currently collects more than $1 million in fees for the city on an annual basis, and also has some licensing charges MAWSS does not. There is a definite disagreement here as to whether MAWSS is going to do the same if they’re in charge.
Bracy and others on the side of dissolving PWWS say the fees will continue to be collected, even though it isn’t lined out in the legislation. Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam says the fees won’t be collected and it will likely spell the end of his city. He’s even gone as far as accusing Bracy and Figures of trying to destroy Prichard in order to see him fail as mayor.
While that sounds pretty extreme and usually when someone mentions a conspiracy to destroy their political career my mind floats off to Jupiter’s third moon, it is hard to understand why the mayor would defend an entity Bracy says is unwanted by 90 percent of the city’s residents. Then again just because something doesn’t make political sense doesn’t mean someone won’t support it. (See: Richardson, Fred; 1. Mobile City Councilman. 2. Political Buffoon.)
Other things PWWS board members talked about was that Prichard is about to dig its own wells, meaning it will no longer have to purchase water from MAWSS, saving the utility millions. They also pointed out the legislation protects Mobile citizens from suffering rate increases as a result of the merger, but does not do the same for Prichard citizens.
Board members also defended questions about their rates, saying they are quite low, but the problem that arises in Prichard is so many buildings are in poor condition and there are leaks. It’s an issue they say they’re working to correct, but added that MAWSS would face the same issue.
Perhaps the biggest issue for people living in Mobile or out in the county is that if Prichard was to dissolve it would present serious questions as to who would cover basic services. The PWWS members said it could end up with Mobile police and fire having to cover a good bit of Prichard if the city dissolves, as well as increased burden on the sheriff’s office.
So at the end of the day it’s tough to know exactly what to think. Politicians serving Prichard paint doom and gloom pictures no matter which way things go. Meanwhile it seems odd to just hand over $50 million worth of equipment and infrastructure with no money changing hands.
Bracy has repeatedly pointed out that the citizens of Prichard own the utility, yet he cosponsored a bill that would give what they’ve built away for free. That’s a head-scratcher.
It doesn’t make sense that MAWSS would want an entity that is in total shambles, it doesn’t make sense that there are not iron-clad commitments as to keeping Prichard from losing such a large amount of money, and it doesn’t make sense that the citizens who have built the system over the years wouldn’t see their city compensated at all for transferring it to MAWSS.
Right now it seems to me there are just too many unanswered questions for it to make sense to dissolve Prichard’s Water Board.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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