Disagreement about Eutaw Water System erupts again at City Council meeting

By: John Zippert,
Co-Publisher

The Eutaw City Council held its regular meeting on Tuesday evening at 6:00 PM at the Carver School gymnasium. The Council and the audience had on masks and were socially distanced.
The Council was breezing along passing routine business items when LaJeffrey Carpenter offered a motion for “an emergency audit of all City Departments” which was seconded and supported by Sheila Smith. The discussion on this motion re-opened the controversy on the Mayor’s handling of the City’s water system.
Mayor Steele said he had contracted for an audit with a CPA in Tuscaloosa. “This person, whose name I do not recall, is 90% complete with the audit of the City’s finances for 2019.
We have not paid him yet. Gardner, a former accountant for the City, did a budget but the Council did not approve it,” according to Steele.
The Council voted to approve the motion for an emergency audit. Councilwoman Shelia Smith said “The Council has not received a clear financial statement from Mayor Steele in four years. The revenue deposited in the bank from the water department has been steadily declining. The Council voted in February, not to accept cash payments, to have a better and traceable record of water income but the Mayor refused to implement this policy.”
Councilwoman Latasha Johnson, who is in an October 6th runoff election with Mayor Steele, said, “Someone is spreading rumors that we are selling the city’s water system. This is not true we are trying to straighten it out and make it produce the revenues it should.”
Johnson said, “The Council voted to have Kathy Horne with Water Management Associates come to review and correct the problems in the water system, including billing. But the Mayor would not allow her and her associates to come in the City Hall last week, under threat of arrest for trespassing. The bills for water are still messed up. Residents got their bills late. Some are for two months but only have one month’s charge for garbage. Some meters are covered with dirt so how they be read? Some people are complaining about the quality of the water and others say the bills are too high.”
Mayor Steele said he stopped the people from Water Management Associates from coming to the City Water Department because the Council’s motion was illegal. “I am the Mayor and I make the day-to-day decisions. I feel your motion was illegal and should have been presented to the State’s Attorney General, for a legal opinion as to its validity. Without the opinion, which the Council would not authorize, I stopped the contract. I did not say I would arrest the people if they came into City Hall.”
Councilman Joe Lee Powell stated, “I was in the meeting, you said to Kathy Horne and Water Management Associates, that they could not come to work, under the contract we adopted and signed. The water situation and the bills are still not corrected and we are not getting the income we should.”
The Mayor then argued that the new Eutaw Water System cost too much and more grants should have been provided rather than loans from USDA Rural Development. He also said the bills were late because the cord that connects the meter reader to the computer was damaged and had to be replaced, which led to a delay in shipment through the mail. The Mayor also encouraged everyone who wanted to see the records to come to City Hall and ask to see them.
Latasha Johnson said, “the state of the water system is an election issue. We tried to correct the problems but the Mayor stood in the way of the management consultants coming in to fix the problems. He has not given us any reports for us to have confidence that the system has been corrected. Bills are late and not connected to reality. We must make a change from the top to correct this situation.”
In its regular business session, the Eutaw City Council:
• Referred a claim from Rachel Nixon to our insurance company through the City Attorney.
• Approved a liquor license for Family Dollar Store for retail sales of beer and wine, off premises; transfer of Piggly Wiggly off premises beer and wine licenses to Samuel J Hamilton LLC.
• Accepted a bid of $39,700 from Central Alabama Asphalt for paving M & M Drive.
• Approved purchase, with CARES Act funds, of LIFEPAK 15 Monitor and Defibrillator for the Greene County Emergency Management Service for use with the city’s ambulance service, to revive and monitor patients, provided sufficient funding remained in the City’s CARES Act funding allocation.

Eutaw Mayor and Council reach agreement to pay bills; water issues remain unfinished

The Eutaw City Council met twice in the past two weeks on January 10 and January 14, to resolve differences, pay pressing bills and deal with problems with the City’s water system.
The City Council members and Mayor Steele were at an impasse at the Friday, January 10th special called meeting to find a way to pay critical outstanding bills before vendors, like Alabama Power Company, A.T. &T, water chemical companies, and other essential providers, cut off supplies and services.
Council members: Latasha Johnson, Sheila Smith, LaJeffrey Carpenter and Joe Lee Powell were concerned about authorizing the use of bingo funds to pay bills until they received assurance from Mayor Steele that the roads in King Village would be resurfaced; other policies passed by the Council, such as the “no acceptance of cash as payment for city services” were implemented; and the Water Department operations and billing were corrected.
Mayor Steele said the special street repair funds were for Branch Heights and that the streets in King Village “were not in as bad a shape as other streets in the City and did not need repair at this time.”
No agreement or consensus was reached and the January 10 meeting was adjourned without progress. The Mayor and the Council agreed to a work session on January 14 with technical support from Ralph Banks, President of Merchants and Farmers Bank and a former city council member, to try to work toward a compromise.
The January 14 meeting included a work session and a regular meeting. The Mayor and Council adopted a resolution indicating that up to $300,000 in bingo funds could be withdrawn from the dedicated account for street repairs to be transferred to the General Fund for the payment of pressing outstanding bills, provided that the City would proceed to advertise and take bids for resurfacing the streets and roads in King Village, to be paid for with gasoline tax fund accounts.
The City established a special street repair fund, with funds from bingo, provided through the Sheriff’s Department for street repairs in Branch Heights and King Village. The City then used gasoline tax funds to resurface the roads in Branch Heights, which is a permissible and legal use of gas tax funds.
The Mayor then received approval from the City Council to transfer funds from the special street repair fund to the General Fund to pay bills.
The resolution passed in the January 14th meeting made a similar budgetary adjustment to pay critical bills and still move forward with paving the roads in King Village. The Mayor and several council members indicated that they had discussed these steps with Sheriff Joe Benison and he was supportive.
The Council also asked about problems with operations and billing in the Water Department. The Mayor insisted that all problems with digital water meters had been resolved and that the billing problems were being corrected. There was a disagreement over the extent of revenue shortfall from the Water Department. The Mayor said the shortfall was in the range of $40,000 for the past year while council members set the shortfall at significantly higher – above $300,000 by their estimates.
The Council agreed to have a working session on February 18 with Kathy Horne from the Alabama Rural Water Association to discuss improvements to the water system.
Mayor Steele said he was “reluctant to turn the water system over to someone outside the city”. Council members pointed out that there suggestions and solutions were never implemented by the Mayor.
Many in the audience said they received the same water bills each month even though their usage was different at different times of the year. Ralph Banks pointed out that the garbage charge on the monthly water bills was $15 but that Waste Management was charging the city $17 a month for each garbage bin they were servicing. “The City should not continue to subsidize garbage collection for its residents,” said Banks.
In other actions, the City Council:
• tabled action to purchase new computers for the Water Department, until after the meeting with Kathy Horne in February;
• approved a contract for Alabama Power to store power poles at the parking lot of the National Guard Armory, for which it will receive $1,000 a month compensation.
• approved a Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax holiday for February 21-23, 2020.