The Birmingham City Council passed a resolution on Tuesday to express its disapproval of a bill in the Alabama House of Representatives that would overhaul the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) and reorganize the appointment structure of its members.
After a year of crisis at the Birmingham Water Works, State Reps. Jim Carns (R-Vestavia Hills) and David Faulkner (R-Hoover) introduced House Bill 177 in March.
Carns told 1819 News in March he was moved to co-sponsor the bill after hearing constituents' complaints over the last two years about the utility’s billing issues. He also said the Water Works is losing 51% of the water they are treating.
The Birmingham Water Works currently serves over 600,000 Alabamians in Birmingham and five surrounding counties. It's the largest water system in Alabama.
Currently, two of the BWWB members are appointed by the mayor of Birmingham. The Birmingham City Council appoints four. One is appointed by the Jefferson County Mayors' Association, another by the Shelby County Commission and one by the Blount County Commission.
Originally, the bill would’ve allowed the mayor of Birmingham the authority to appoint four members, and the Alabama governor would be responsible for appointing three.
However, lawmakers altered the bill earlier this month to adjust the appointment structure that the bill would institute if passed.
The updated BWWB bill still purports to reduce the size of the BWWB to seven members. However, the Birmingham mayor would only get two appointments, and the Birmingham City Council would also get two. The appointees would be required to have an engineering or finance background.
The remaining three members would be appointed by the county commissions of Shelby and Blount Counties and the Jefferson County Mayors Association.
All present members of Birmingham City Council voted for the resolution stating their opposition to the bill. City Councilman Hunter Williams was the only councilor absent at the time of the vote.
City Councilman Clinton Woods, who introduced the resolution, noted that the bill removes two appointments from the council.
“It also reduces the overall number of appointments made by the City of Birmingham as a whole,” Woods said. “That basically dilutes our ability to represent our ratepayers, who are the largest block of ratepayers here in the City of Birmingham.”
City Councilman Darrell O’Quinn shared Woods’ sentiment.
“We’ve very much been paying attention to this issue,” he said. “As the relationship is sometimes tenuous between Montgomery and Birmingham, we have been very careful to not make the situation worse, so we’ve been seeking advice directly from state legislatures. I think a time has come for us to take a position officially and put it in writing.”
“It’s totally unfair how they bully Birmingham,” said City Council Pro Tempore Crystal Smitherman, daughter of State Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham), also an opponent of the bill. “That’s all that they’re doing is bullying us.”
City Councilwoman Carol Clark had reservations about the aspect of the bill that requires BWWB embers to serve without compensation.
City Councilwoman Valerie Abbott questioned whether the utility’s billing issues, which caused the backlash from legislators in the first place, could even be blamed on the BWWB.
“The fact that the billing issues are being blamed on the board, I’m just not really sure how the board would've controlled the problems with the billing issues, which I’ll admit I don’t really understand how they got into all that trouble with billing, but I don’t think you can blame it on the board,” Abbott said. “And to put a bill in the Legislature to take away our ability to appoint people because the Water Works - although it is no longer ours because we sold it - it is the Birmingham Water Works, and we started it.”
However, she did agree with the aspect of the bill requiring certain qualifications for board members.
“I think that there is some wisdom in requiring that the members have a professional background in something that actually affects the Water Works,” she noted. “Having someone who’s an expert in finance is a very wise thing. Having someone who’s an engineer would be a wise thing. But that was the only thing that I could find in the bill that I could agree with.”
City Council President Wardine Alexander insisted that whether or not the bill was introduced in its original form or the sub-bill, it still diminishes the power of the city council to appoint members.
“We want to continue with our appointing power as it is currently,” Alexander said.
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