Birmingham Water Works is hiring another public relations firm, but a spokesperson said it wouldn't add to the approximately $200 million budget already approved for fiscal year (FY) 2023.

The Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) decided on Tuesday to add CBG Strategies to the utility's communications team. CGB will join the utility's in-house staff and o2 Ideas, which advises the utility about matters pertaining to internal relations. Alternatively, CGB will assist the utility in its external communications. 

On its website, CGB describes itself as a "community engagement firm" based in Birmingham. Its clients include several government agencies in central Alabama, such as the City of Birmingham, the Probate Court of Montgomery County, the Birmingham District Housing Authority and nonprofits, such as the American Heart Association and Absent But Counted. 

In November, the BWWB approved two new budgets for fiscal year FY 2023, which amount to a combined total of $197,612,101. The new budgets also call for a 3.9% rate hike.

On top of this, Birmingham Water Works has received $43,514,704 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), but this money was allocated toward a lead service line repair project.

November's rate hike was less than half of the rate increase that the BWWB considered in September and is identical to the rate hike that came with the FY 2022 budget.

Initially, the BWWB considered recommendations made by consultants and the board's staff, which were presented to the board's Finance Committee in September. 

The board then proposed raising rates by an average of 8.3%, well above last year's increase of 3.9%.

The original recommendations suggested allotting $1.5 million in labor costs in order to include two new PR positions. 

This comes after a year of public scrutiny over billing issues.

Thousands of customers reportedly didn't receive bills for months at a time. Later, they received much larger or multiple bills all at once.

The bills were not based on accurate meter readings but were estimations using previous months' usage. Birmingham Water Works blamed the issues on insufficient meter readers and inadequate staffing.

According to Water Works public relations manager Rick Jackson, the utility's estimation of water bills was a temporary measure taken due to staffing shortages in the meter reading and billing departments. 

Nevertheless, a former employee accused the Water Works of lacking checks and balances and communication last year. She claimed to be one of three billing department employees fired on Dec. 1, 2021, and said the utility accused her of falsifying documents, which she denies.

Instead, she said she was intentionally given unclear instructions from the managers whose orders she was following.

The former billing department employee said this went on for over two years, and she was not surprised when billing issues ensued earlier in 2022.

According to a recent press release, the utility has implemented a five-year "Strategic Plan" that will involve members of the BWWB, the Water Works staff and external stakeholders. The plan outlines "opportunities for improved community engagement and public relations, customer service enhancements, workforce development along with employee engagement and training."

"A strong PR plan starts from within," said Water Works Public Relations Manager Rick Jackson. "Having our employees well-versed on the vision of this company along with providing a continuous strategy for community engagement is a win-win for our entire service area."

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