After a year of crisis at the Birmingham Water Works, two state legislators representing part of the Birmingham area are trying to alter the qualifications for serving on the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) and make the utility regional. That means Gov. Kay Ivey would gain the authority to appoint three of its members.
State Rep. Jim Carns (R-Vestavia Hills) and David Faulkner (R-Hoover) introduced House Bill 177 on Tuesday, which would terminate the terms of the nine current BWWB members and reinstitute a new board with refined qualifications.
The Birmingham Water Works currently serves over 600,000 Alabamians in Birmingham and five surrounding counties. It's the largest water system in Alabama.
The BWWB is a nine-member board of directors. 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.
BWWB members serve staggered six-year terms.
See also: The Water Board bureaucracy: How does the Birmingham Water Works Board work?
The legislation, if passed, would change how BWWB members are appointed and start a national search for a qualified CEO. The mayor of Birmingham would gain the authority to appoint four members, and the Alabama governor would be responsible for appointing three.
The bill would require the BWWB to have at least one board member with a finance background and one with an engineering background. All members would have to bring some business and water system experience to the table but could not have worked for a company that did business with the Water Works in the last two years.
Additionally, elected officials would be allowed to serve on the BWWB.
It would also limit BWWB members to two five-year terms, make them subject to the state Ethics Act and require them to be transparent on their website about its finances.
Carns told 1819 News he was moved to co-sponsor the bill after hearing constituents' complaints over the last two years.
"It's been ridiculous," he said. "... "The billing issues are terrible. In my district, I've heard complaints for the last two years of not getting bills for five or six months, then getting a $4,000 to $6,000 bill. People in the more modest neighborhoods have been doing the same thing and then getting $600 or $800 bills, which they can not handle. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a living issue for 750,000 people that are being served by the [BWWB]. Their governance needs to be overhauled."
Carns also said that the Water Works is losing 51% of the water they are treating and insisted there is pushback from other elected officials in the Birmingham area.
The effort was not met with a universally positive response.
State Sen. Rodger Smitherman (R-Birmingham) tied up business during an afternoon session of the State Senate on Wednesday in response to the Carns-Faulkner proposal.
BWWB chairwoman Terishia Huffman, a former Democratic candidate for the Alabama House appointed to her position earlier this year, gave a strident defense of the BWWB in a statement, arguing that the board "represents the diverse service area" the Water Works serves.
"We have prioritized ensuring that our board reflects our community and that our decisions are made with their best interests in mind," Huffman said. "Additionally, we take great pride in transparency with our customers and stakeholders and are committed to maintaining our sound financial strength … We remain committed to providing safe, reliable, and affordable water services to our customers, and we will continue to work with the Jefferson County delegation, state legislature, and all community stakeholders to ensure that our board structure best serves the needs of our five-county service area."
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