Branch Heights residents protest water shut-offs Eutaw City Council approves motion for a state audit of the Water Department

Mayor Raymond Steele addresses Branch Heights residents.

At its October 22, 2019 regular meeting the Eutaw City Council approved a motion by a vote of 4 to 2 to conduct a state audit of the City’s water department. Council members: Latasha Johnson, Joe Lee Powell, Sheila H. Smith and LaJeffrey Carpenter voted in favor while Councilman Bennie Abrams and Mayor Raymond Steele voted against the motion.
The Eutaw City Council has been expressing concern and discontent with the operation of the City Water Department for more than a year. The Council concerns include problems with the operation and accuracy of the self-reporting water meters; problems with the soft wear reading the meters and creating the water bills, and a drop-off in revenues from the water department due to billing and collection problems.

The Council asked the Mayor repeatedly to correct problems with the water system and billing. The Mayor has said he is handling the problems but the Council members point out that there has not been any improvement in the operation of the department.
Many of the City’s 1,400+ water customers report that they receive the same monthly minimum water bills each month regardless of usage. Other users report not receiving bills for months and then receiving a large bill all at once, which they say they cannot afford.
Council member Latasha Brown,” I made the motion for a state audit because we have got to get to the bottom of the problems in our water department. We need an independent review of the status of the meters, billing, collection and all other aspects of the system.

City shuts off water to 50 homes in Branch Heights

Mayor Raymond Steele says in response to the concerns of the City Council for the financial stability of the City Water Department that he decided to shut-off water supplies to 50 homes in Branch Heights that were more than three months behind in their water bills.
This action against the backdrop of unresolved problems in the City Water Department caused an uproar with many Branch Heights water customers crowding City Hall on Monday, October 28, 2019 for answers to the water shut-off, which they considered arbitrary and unfair.
“We want to have regular and quality water services. We are willing to pay but we want good water to drink not cloudy water and sometimes brown or red water. We also want to be sure the meters are reading correctly – so we will be billed monthly and fairly for our water usage,” said one angry Branch Heights resident.
In response to the citizen complaints, Mayor Steele said that he would turn the water back on and require all customers to pay their back bills by the end of November or face shut-off again. When asked if he would accept payment agreements for past water charges, Mayor Steele said the City needs to be paid like other utilities. People don’t ask Spire Gas Company or Alabama Power for payment plans, they pay their bills or get cut-off.

The Mayor also agreed to flush the lines in Branch Heights to clear the water system of sediments, which make it cloudy or different colors. “We will flush the lines to clear up the water,” said Steele.
Councilwoman Latasha Johnson said she is worried that the Mayor is not really looking for long-term solutions to the problems of the City Water Department and system. “We need him to respond with a plan to resolve the long term financial problems of the system, make sure all the meters are working properly, work out reasonable repayment plans with people for their past debts and operate in a fair and equitable manner with all customers.”

City Council other business

In other business, the Eutaw City Council:

• agreed to find space for the offices of Ms. Lovie Parks, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, at the Carver Community Center facilities;

• approved a resolution, above the Mayor’s objections, to advertise for bids on the roads and streets in King Village. The Mayor said that there are other streets in town, which are in more need of paving and repair than King Village. He pointed to West End Avenue, which suffered from erosion due to recent storms, as more deserving than King Village, at this time;
• approved request of Ducks Unlimited for use of Carver School Gym, for their annual fundraising banquet on November 8, 2019, which included a special liquor license for the occasion;

• approved travel for Councilman Joe Lee Powell to attend Alabama League of Municipalities committee meeting in Montgomery on November 7, 2019.

Eutaw City Council continues to debate financial issues

The Eutaw City Council met twice during the past month on June 11 and June 25 to do the business of the city. The Council continues to debate financial issues which affect other major policy and project decisions.
The Council still does not have a clear budget, showing income sources and expenditures. A budget and an audit are being worked on but no written information is available yet for the City Council as a basis for its actions. Two separate CPA firms are working on the budget and audits but no documents have been produced yet.
A budget would be helpful for the City Council to see the flow of incoming revenues and the payment of expenses for planning future projects and obligations. The audits are needed to verify past operations to file applications with USDA Rural Development, ADECA and other state and federal agencies for needed equipment and new projects to improve the city.
A listing of bills to be paid was presented at each meeting. The June 11 list shows $276,365 in unpaid bills and the June 25 listing shows a reduction in outstanding bills to $265,243.
Councilwoman Latosha Johnson praised City Clerk Kathy Bir for preparing an understandable list of the City’s obligations to allow the council to make decisions on which bills are most pressing and need immediate payment.
The Mayor suggested using funds in a special infrastructure account, set up by the Sheriff, with bingo funds, to pay for improvements to the Branch Heights Roads. These roads were repaired using funds in the highway tax accounts. Several council-members opposed the Mayor’s proposal to spend these funds to pay other bills and initiate other road repair projects without consulting with the Sheriff and clarifying what the City did and plans to do with funds. Again, it is clear that a budget with up to date revenue and expenditure amounts would help to resolve what seemed to be difficult and at times insurmountable problems facing the city.In a related financial matter, the City Council and Mayor deadlocked in a 3 to 3 vote, with Latosha Johnson, Sheila Smith and LaJeffrey Carpenter voting in favor and Joe Lee Powell, Benny Abrams and Mayor Raymond Steele voting against a proposal for pay increases for the police force, supported by donations from the TS Police League, a bingo charity associated with the Palace Bingo Group. The Mayor voted for a tie vote to stop the motion until he had time to discuss with the City Attorney and other legal advisors.
In other actions, the City Council:
• Heard from City Attorney Zane Willingham that the Sate Legislature had passed local legislation to allow for Sunday liquor sales; Willingham said he would draft a new ordinance for on and off premises sale of alcoholic beverages, for consideration at the next Council meeting;
• Received a report from Rev. Jerome McIntosh of SCORE International, a religious organization that wishes to partner with the City on a job skills training program, to be offered at the Carver School – Robert H. Young Community Center;
• Approved travel expenses for Police Chief Derrick Coleman to attend a conference on leadership at UNA in Fort Payne on June12-14, 2019;
• Referred legal claims from Erica Purse and Roland Elliot to the City Attorney;
• Appointed Mrs. Isaac Atkins to serve on the Eutaw Housing Authority Board of Directors.
During the public comment period, a number of residents complained about drainage, road repairs, grass cutting, refuse removal and other similar problems in areas around the city.