While Mobile County Commissioners wait for instruction as to whether county employees can serve on multiple appointed boards, Lagniappe decided to take a closer look at one such entity that often flies under the radar — the Governmental Utilities Services (GUS) Board.
Last month the Commission began toying with the idea of dissolving the 20-year-old board, suggesting it may have potentially outlived its usefulness. It was created in 1995 to oversee the development of a sewer treatment plant in southern Mobile County, a project planned on a 2,000-acre property the county purchased for $1.9 million.
However, when there wasn’t adequate public support to proceed, the plan was abandoned but the county kept the land.
Meanwhile maintaining the property — located between Laurendine Road and Bay Road in Theodore — became one of the GUS board’s main tasks, although it does perform other duties.
“The GUS Board originally was created to assist with sewer service in South Mobile County,” said Joe Debrow, a founding board member and current chairman of the board. “Later on we became involved in economic development with companies like IPSCO Steel, which is now the SSAB plant in the northern part of the county.”
Debrow said the GUS board often helps business like SSAB and local municipalities jump through the hurdles involved with permitting. In fact, the board recently finished assisting Mt. Vernon with grant applications and engineering permits so the town could establish its own sewer treatment plant.
In the interim, the 2,000-acre property the GUS board currently manages serves several purposes for the county and is key in generating revenue that ultimately comes back to the Mobile County Commission, Debrow said. He called the purchase “a good investment” for the county.
“This property was approved for wetland and stream mitigation banks,” Debrow said. “So now, when the county is developing roads and has to mitigate streams and wetlands, they’re actually doing it themselves instead of having to find new land, often outside of the county.”
Environmental mitigation is a requirement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that mandates municipalities whose development projects affect wetlands or natural streams to preserve an equal amount of natural area in another location.
Debrow said in addition to the county using the property for mitigation, the GUS board also increased its value with enhancements over the years and generates revenue by leasing it.
“The property has drastically improved,” Debrow said. “It has a high dollar value based on what it’s being used for, but there’s some cost there. We’ve made some improvements, for instance to the roads to be able to get in and through and the around the area better.”
According to a 10-year lease issued by the GUS board in 2006, 1,786 acres of property is currently being leased by Taylor Creek LLC, which operates the Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve on a portion of the property.
Taylor Creek owner Keith Walker said he also farms 400 acres of the lease. Debrow said the lease allows Walker to use the remaining property for hunting and shooting excursions, though Walker said less than 10 percent of Taylor Creek’s operation takes place on the county-owned land.
“The original reason I got it was farming,” Walker said. “We use it for overflow during the season if we need it, but not even 10 percent of what we do is really there.”
The property was leased at $40 for each of the 400 acres used for agriculture. The remaining lease is paid in quarterly installments at a rate of $7 per acre. The conditions of these were also bid competitively prior to the lease being award in 2006, according to Walker.
Altogether the lease generates $27,000 annually, but the GUS board also brings in revenue from the sale of timber on the property. In 2013, timber sales yielded nearly $60,000, according to an independent audit provided by the county. The same document lists the board’s net assets at $2,411,165, though most of those are fixed assets.
Still, the board is subsidized by the county commission, according to Debrow. The level of the subsidization can fluctuate, but financial records indicate the county has paid more than $7 million in expenses “on the GUS board’s behalf” since 2000.
According to recent audits, the board received more than $500,000 from the county commission in 2012, but those numbers dropped to $421,606 and $389,883 in 2014 and 2013, respectively.
Managing the funding has fallen on the shoulders of Debrow, board member Keith Wise and, until recently, Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer.
The GUS board was one of four county boards Ruffer stepped down from March after being advised by the Alabama Ethics Commission that serving on an appointed board while being employed by the county and serving on multiple boards could present a conflict of interest.
The same month District 3 Commissioner Jerry Carl attempted to appoint Sam St. John as Ruffer’s replacement on the board, but St. John’s appointment was tabled in the absence of a clear ruling from the Ethics Commission.
Since then, the appointment has been stalled while the county seeks a “formal ruling” from the Ethics Commission on whether Ruffer can or should serve on the GUS board. It was during those discussions that talk of dissolving the GUS board altogether first came up.
“I do this as a community service because this county has been good to me,” Debrow said, mentioning his father Arnold Debrow, who served as both a former county commissioner and tax assessor. “Whatever the commission feels is best, I’ll be glad to do. I’ll serve as they want me to, but if the commission deems that they want to take it — it’ll be more responsibility for them, but it’ll still be run through the environmental department anyway.”
As for Ruffer, Debrow said he didn’t see the conflict of interest. In fact, he said he former County Commissioner Sam Jones was one of the founding members of the GUS board along with himself and former Mobile Gas President Walter Hovale.
“Sam was on the board, and we didn’t deem it a conflict of interest,” he said. “But, we always err on the side of caution instead of diving off into a gray area. We do on this board anyway.”
In the interim, Debrow and Wise are the only two votes guiding the actions, property and finances of a board that may very well not exist this time next year.