The legal dispute between the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board (PWWSB) and the city has once again spilled outside the courtroom with Mayor Jimmie Gardner most recently implying the utility deliberately altered the way it handles billing to hurt the city.
Until last month, PWWSB billed customers for water and sewer and tacked on a $15 per month municipal fee, which went to pay for some city services, all on one bill. Gardner said in December PWWSB sent out separate bills — one that included water and sewer fees and another that included the municipal fees. The split billing, Gardner said, will confuse residents.
The municipal fees that had been added to water and sewer bills for years help pay for a number of city services, including public works, police, fire and trash pickup, Gardner said.
“Some things have to be intentional,” Gardner said. “This didn’t happen until we took over our own garbage service.”
The issue for PWWSB comes from a state law prohibiting the shutting off of a customer’s water or other utilities due to a customer’s failure to pay unrelated fees, like the Prichard municipal fee, the utility explained in a statement to reporters.
“In reviewing our procedures, it was revealed that our billing system is limited in how payments and charges are separated between utility and non-utility fees,” the statement read. “As a result we have become concerned that a customer’s utility service could be disconnected as a result of a customer’s non-payment for city services. Upon advice of counsel, starting last month in an effort to prevent any conflicts in utility billing and the collection of the municipal service fees, PWWSB began separating the utility charges and the municipal service fees.”
In the statement PWWSB leadership says the printing of additional bills will cost them money, but they will not be charging a fee to recoup those funds. In the statement, the utility also acknowledged there were mistakes in last month’s bills and they will work to correct them.
“In our initial billing last month, the billing vendor mistakenly printed the bills for the municipal service fees on the standard utility billing forms, which included an incorrect disconnect and termination notice,” the statement reads. “It is our understanding that the billing form has been corrected for next month’s bills. We understand that it will take us a couple of months to perfect the separated billing process with our vendor, but we expect that ultimately the separated billings will be simple for customers to understand as we go forward.”
Prichard is still in litigation with the utility over fire hydrants, Gardner said, but he promised news on that front would be “coming soon.”
The city is in the process of starting to pick up garbage instead of contracting it out. Garbage pickup will begin next month, but residents have already received garbage cans.
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