Eutaw City Council reinstates City Clerk; takes no clear action to resolve water problems

By John Zippert,
At its regular meeting on Tuesday, February 25, 2020, the Eutaw City Council voted to reinstate City Clerk, Kathy Bir, to her position. Mayor Steele had dismissed her earlier in the week. The vote was 4-1-1 with the Mayor voting no and all other Council members voting yes, except Joe Lee Powell who abstained.
This action is part of a long running dispute between the Mayor and City Council over who is responsible for making decisions to operate the city. Mayor Raymond Steele asserts that he has “day-to-day” decision-making authority over city operations.
The Council asserts that they have fiscal responsibility and control over the affairs of the city. The Council has removed the Mayor as a check signer on most city bank accounts as a way of controlling his actions and determining which bills get paid. This conflict between the Mayor and Council makes it difficult for the city to make major decisions and move ahead to resolve problems.
This disagreement resurfaced around the issue of contracting with Water Management Services (WMS), headed by Kathy Horne and the Alabama Rural Water Association (ARWA) to correct problems in the operation and finances of the City of Eutaw Water System. At a February 18, Eutaw City Council Work Session, Rob White, Executive Director of ARWA and Kathy Horne of WMS presented a devastating report on the status of the City of Eutaw Water System.
They reviewed data on the Eutaw Water System for the period October 2018 to August 2019 and found:
• A water loss for the system of over 50% for each of these months, which compared water pumped at city wells with water billed by the system, 15% loss is considered ideal.
• A significant number of the new digital water meters are installed incorrectly; for others the meter number does not match up with the computerized billing system; in other cases there is a disconnect in the billing software for some of the meters.
• A monthly discrepancy between the total residential water customers (1353) and the average number billed (850) for water.
• A monthly loss of revenue for the system of more than $85,000 a month.
Council members who have been concerned for some time about the problems of the water system requested that the city attorney prepare documents to contract with Water Management Services to correct the problems. At Tuesday’s meeting, when this item came up for discussion, Zane Willingham, City Attorney, advised that since the water service contract would cost over $50,000, it would need to be competitively bid by the city and could not be awarded to Kathy Horne’s group (WMS) without a bidding process.
Mayor Raymond Steele pointed out that he was named Superintendent of the Water System, at the start of his term as Mayor and that “you cannot take away my authority to manage the water system on a day-to-day basis by bringing in a consultant to take over operation of the system.”
The City Council instructed Zane Willingham, City Attorney to draw up the necessary papers for their next regular meeting to bid out the management of the water system. Mayor Steele continued to assert that he was in charge of the water system and would meet with Kathy Horne and others to determine what management and technical assistance is needed to operate the system.
Speaking from the audience, Danny Cooper, Chair of the Industrial Board implored the Mayor and Council, “As a lifelong resident of Eutaw, I am distressed that you cannot get together to address the obvious and serious condition of the water system. We are losing revenues every month that we need to run the city. I receive the same minimum bill every month for water, which means the water system is not functioning properly. You need to come together to address this crisis.”
People at the meeting, including this reporter, left the meeting without a clear idea of what the next steps will be to resolve the City of Eutaw Water System problems.
In other actions, the Eutaw City Council:
• approved a liquor license for J&S Bartenders for a Delta Sigma Theta Sorority event on March13, 2020;
• approved a contract for Greene County Foster Parents to rent space, for $100 month, in the Robert Young Community Center;
• approved a contract from Jasper Means Construction for $25,000 to repair the street crossing at Sears Drive;
• approved purchase of equipment from the State of Alabama Surplus Property Agency consisting of a street sweeper ($15,000), lawnmower ($4,000) and trailer ($1,500);
• approved installation of surveillance cameras in Branch Heights, King Village and Carver Circle to reduce crime; and
• did not approve an ordinance to raise the salary of city council members, beginning with the next elected city council.

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