Executives with the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board spent hundreds of dollars on “working lunches,” a Yeti brand cooler and voice-activated garbage cans, according to records obtained by Lagniappe.
Credit card receipts and requisition forms going back as far as last October confirm purchases made by Director Nia Bradley and others for what she later claimed were a litany of reasons.
Among the more interesting purchases is $420 spent on two garbage cans with “voice and motion control,” according to a receipt from Simplehuman.
Bradley defended the purchase as a way to help improve the look of the utility’s offices. She said the aesthetics of the office weren’t “up to par.”
“We should look like the company we are striving to be,” she said. “If you come in there now … everything is modernized.”
Another interesting purchase was found in a receipt for a Michael Strahan brand “midweight parka” purchased on the JCPenney website for $49.99. Bradley said this and a number of other clothing purchases, including four blazers for $420, were for various staff members. Bradley also paid to have the items embroidered with the PWWSB logo, she said.
Also at issue for some customers are expenses for “working lunches.” Among the receipts obtained by Lagniappe are four from various Mobile restaurants. There was an $85 charge at Half Shell Oyster Bar on Oct. 31 and a $91.17 charge made at Outback Steakhouse on Nov. 7. A Nov. 14 receipt shows a charge of $34.54 at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. A Nov. 15 receipt shows a total of $75 spent at Felix’s Fish Camp.
Russell Heidelberg, a board member, said there is no reason why members of the PWWSB should be going out for lunch, but Bradley disagreed. She said staff members will sometimes conduct lunch meetings with vendors and are not allowed to have vendors pay for those lunches.
Bradley added the lunches do not happen often and are not part of a regular schedule.
Other purchases raising eyebrows with some customers is the $384.99 spent at Academy Sports + Outdoors in Mobile on Nov. 23 for a Yeti Tundra 65 cooler. There was also a Nov. 28 receipt for a Dell Laptop and various equipment from Best Buy for $1,095.
Bradley said every purchase made on the credit card serves a business purpose.
Beverly Bunch, another board member, said she did not approve any of the listed credit card expenses.
“I have not seen a bank statement in over a year and I have not received an invite to lunch,” she said.
Heidelberg said he, too, had not approved any of the credit card charges and accused the other board members of hiding financial statements from him.
Board Chairman Nathaniel Inge confirmed the board signs off on all smaller credit card charges through Ayanna Payton, the board’s secretary and treasurer. But Inge also said the amount requiring board approval depends on the hierarchy.
According to information on the board’s requisition sheet, the signature limit is $5,000 for water and sewer operations managers and $1,000 for supervisors. The board raised the limits to the current levels at a Nov. 9, 2015, meeting.
Prichard resident and PWWSB customer Katie Davis said the board should focus more on reducing monthly bills than treating themselves to lunch or buying expensive garbage cans for the office.
“The’re living high on the hog on our dime,” Davis said. “Prichard is so poor for them to be doing us like this. Just keep all this stuff and give us a break on our water bills.”
Davis said she and her husband pay about $120 per month for water. Bradley said the minimum charge for a water and sewer bill is $42.10. She said the board is continuing an effort to lower prices and currently conducting a feasibility study to see if it’s more economical for the system to drill its own wells or continue to purchase water from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System.
Prichard City Councilwoman Severia Campbell Morris, who campaigned on a promise to lower water rates, said she has heard from constituents that PWWSB is running more smoothly under Bradley’s leadership.
“People can see a major change in the system,” she said. “They are happier than they were before.”
Morris specifically mentioned an improvement in customer service. She also took credit for appointing three new board members, but the City Council must approve all appointments with a majority vote.
Inge commended Bradley on her work for the board. Although she was hired as a contractor, Bradley has since been officially hired through the Mobile County Personnel Board. Inge said the hands-off approach by the majority of the board has led to disagreements between members.
“The function of the board is not to guide the utility, it is to hire competent individuals like [Bradley] and allow her to do her job,” he said. “Some want to be involved more heavily than they should.”
Bradley said the system and the board are trying to improve visibility and transparency throughout the community. They have purchased a vacuum truck and camera truck, and have started an education campaign aimed at preventing customers from pouring grease down household drains.
The board has also initiated its first-ever health fair for employees where flu shots were given.
Board member John Johnson said he was recently at a career fair handing out literature and speaking to people about what the system does.
“I’m a newcomer to the board and a grassroots resident of Prichard,” Johnson said. “I’m seeing a big difference. The board is more transparent and out in the community.”