Looks like the relationship between the Peachtree City Council and the Water and Sewer Authority hasn’t exactly taken a turn for the better yet.
At Thursday night’s city council meeting, WASA board chairman Mike Harman took the council to task for denigrating one if its members and for treating WASA as an adversary.
Last month, in what was expected to be a simple reappointment process of already serving member Tim Meredith to the WASA board, councilman Erick Imker said he was “not prepared to nominate anyone to the WASA board,” noting he was concerned with where WASA is heading.
“They have been spending a lot of money trying to win the hearts of the public and make them forget past indiscretions and raising rates. Do you remember the board saying they would pass a bond that would cost the city’s taxpayer more money?”
Imker was specifically referring to the rate increases of 2010 of over $20 per month at a time when WASA’s revenues plummeted enough for it to have to remove nearly a half million dollars from its reserves to pay its annual debt service of over $3 million to cover the expansion of the sewage treatment facility, as well as Meredith’s support of the WASA bond refinancing without the city’s credit rating.
Ultimately, the council and WASA board opted to use the city’s AAA bond rating to obtain a better interest rate on the bonds which is estimated to save nearly a half million over the course of the bonds.
Additionally, at the same meeting, councilman George Dienhart agreed, pointing out that it wasn’t “in the city’s best interest” to reappoint him.
Dienhart noted that he wasn’t sold on the fact that the board was running WASA with the best interests of the citizens at heart.
“People are worked up over the rate hike. I’m not sold that the group we have in there is running WASA, not intentionally, to the best of the citizens interests. They’ve made some questionable decisions.”
At Thursday night’s meeting, Harman not only explained the rate increase, which he said was the result of a number of factors, including a decline in customers as a result of the economic downturn and the longtime drought which cut water consumption levels.
“This is not unique,” he noted, adding that authorities across the country had seen declines in revenue for these reasons.
He also pointed out that the authority has received several awards at state and local levels and had recently received a Standard and Poor rating of AA-, which was higher than anticipated.
Also, WASA’s financial audits have been spotless since 2008 and regulatory wise, they only had three incidents in the last five years of accidental discharge.
There was also good news about the recently approved bond issue.
“It was very successful and based on the improved interest rates we were able to save about $3 million over the life of the bond. Originally planned on bond value of 29.5 million came in at 28.6 million. With the city’s help, we werea able to save about $100,000 off that amount.
“The reason I’m really here,” said Harman, “is that at the last council meeting, accusations were made, as were derogatory comments towards a board member.
“It’s not fair to be spoken about in public like that. Some of those comments were that the council was concerned that Tim voted to increase rates, we are trying to make citizens forget the past rate increase, that he doesn’t deserve to be sitting on the board and is not serving the best interests of the citizens. That is just not true.”
As far as the public relations push is concerned, one of the authority’s audit points is public relations and monies had to be committed to those resources of informing the public what was going on. Money was spent on the development of a website and newsletter; residents were invited to tour the plants, and the authority even threw an anniversary party, which was well received by the public.
“There was not an attempt to make people forget about the rates- they see that every time they pay their bill- but to keep the public informed. The value of that is intangible and there is no way to judge its effectiveness. Attendance at our meetings are virtually zero.”
He also said that at no time did WASA say it wanted to proceed without the help of the city council, blaming the misinformation from the media.
“As soon as that article came out, I phoned the council members. Three of you didn’t want to meet with me; you didn’t even return the phone calls or emails.
“WASA is not an adversary of the council, of the citizens. WASA is operated as a non-profit business and it is run like one.”
Harman urged the council and the public to attend meetings.
“We’re all available to talk. You may not agree with us, but you will get the truth and an answer.”
Harman said he understood that people are unhappy about the rates, but the cost of cleaning and treating water has stayed constant of increased but there was reduced usage.
“When the city of Senoia approached us [to extend sewer service outside Peachtree City’s limits] it would have been a significant input of cash with ongoing income after that.”
Harman said council was informed - a past council- there was going to be a significant rate increase and this might help.
“Instead of taking an aggressive tone, the council has to take some responsibility here. It was the decision of the council. They didn’t want to expand and increase potential growth. There is no reason we can’t work together. I’m here because I felt the need to defend a board member who has faithfully served for 10 years. I don’t say there weren’t some bad decisions, but there’s nothing going on here except the treatment of wastewater. We want to be better partners with the council. If you have something to talk to Tim Meredith about, talk to him about what you want to know. The information is available. I just didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about a board member that way.”
The morning after the meeting, Imker said he didn’t agree with Harman’s assessment that their had been no discussion about refinancing the bonds without the benefit of the council.
“We have it from the minutes of meetings. No, it wasn’t voted on, but it was discussed. Did the council feel threatened with it? Yes we did. I believe, as I think does the majority of the council, that there needs to be changes made at WASA.”