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.

Mayor Raymond Steele announces groundbreaking for Love’s Truckstop on October 15

At the regular Eutaw City Council meeting on September 11, 2018, Mayor Raymond Steele announced that the groundbreaking for the Love’s Truckstop, at Exit 40 off Interstate 59/20 has been scheduled for 11:30 AM on Monday, October 15, 2018. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey is scheduled to attend the groundbreaking along with representatives of state and Federal agencies that have facilitated the project coming to Greene County. After construction of the truckstop, with parking for 87 trucks, a convenience store and other services, Love’s will employ 43 people on an on-going operational basis. The Mayor indicated that the City of Eutaw has received a $400,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) and a $372,425 grant from the Delta Regional Authority towards a $900,000 project to extend and connect the City Sewage to the truckstop site. The Greene County Industrial Development Authority has agreed to loan the City of Eutaw the balance needed to complete the sewage extension. Mayor Steele said, “We hope other businesses like motels and restaurants, will recognize the value of locating at the Interstate exit and we welcome their interest and support. The Mayor also reported that the City had determined that a large number of the new self-reporting water meters have been installed incorrectly and that in some cases the meter numbers were incorrectly listed on the master list, which meant that they were not properly communicating water usage for billing purposes. “We are working with the project engineers and contractor to correct these problems and bring our water billing procedures up-to-date,” said the Mayor. The Mayor also thanked Ms. Lovie Burrell Parks and the Greene County Extension Service for assistance in beautification of the city and the City Park area with shrubs, flowers, fences and other support. The Extension Service has also provided 40 round tables and 320 chairs for use at the City Park and two rooms with weights and exercise equipment for former Carver School property for use by the residents of the city. In other actions, the Eutaw City Council, approved closing Highway 14, at the junction with County Road 170, for repair of the Colonial Pipeline, which crosses Highway 14 at this point, about a mile from the Interstate Exit. The repairs are to begin September 17, 2018 and last for up to two weeks, which will mean rerouting traffic to and from the Interstate. Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson made a motion to re-name Carver School, which the City is in the process of acquiring from the Board of Education, for use as a recreation center, to be named the Robert H. Young Civic Center, in honor of the deceased long-time Principal of the school. The motion was approved. The Eutaw City Council approved Danny Cooper and Billy Mingus to serve on the Airport Authority Board charged with administrating and operating the city’s airstrip. The Council tabled the issue of securing municipal license tags for all city vehicles since Council members Sheila H. Smith and LaJeffrey Carpenter, the main proponents of this issue, were absent from the meeting. This Eutaw City Council meeting was well attended with every seat in the audience filled. A group of mostly white residents came out to support the Eutaw Police Department against what they claimed were efforts by Council members to interfere with police efforts to fight crime and drugs. A Tuscaloosa TV station was also present video-tapping the meeting. One resident who said she lived across the street from the National Guard Armory said parties at the facility on weekends were still ending too late and disturbing the neighborhood. Jacky Davis, a Black resident responded, “The police must give respect to the people if they expect to get respect from the people.” Spiver W. Gordon said, “Respect is a two way street. Mutual respect is needed between the police and young people in the streets. We must teach and train our children to respect the police and the police must respect us and our children in the streets.”