House panel debates Birmingham Water Works legislation

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A House panel on commerce heard concerns late Wednesday afternoon about Senate Bill 89 to impose membership, term, and compensation limits on the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB).

The BWWB serves Jefferson, Walker, Sinclair, Shelby, and Blount counties. However, the Birmingham City Council makes all appointments and is under no legal obligation to appoint anyone from the suburban counties.

If approved, SB 89 would expand the Birmingham Water Works Board to include representatives from Jefferson, Blount, and Shelby counties. Each member would be limited to two 4-year terms. Further, the bill enacts a $1,000 per month cap on member pay.

The provisions in SB 89, according to sponsor Sen. Jabo Waggoner, have been the subject of a long fight with Birmingham council members. During his opening statement, Waggoner said it was his third attempt at legislation to add transparency and balance to the board makeup.

“We’re going to open it up to some accountability,” he said. “For the life of me I don’t understand why they’ve fought this legislation.”

Waggonner argued that his bill would ensure fair representation from the customers in those counties, while maintaining a super-majority of members from Birmingham.

Blount County Commissioner Chris Green said that fair representation was the major reason he would support the bill. “Marshall County and Cullman County (water boards) also serve customers in Blount County, and because they do, we have representation on those boards. We know that diversity brings strength. Bringing accountability and transparency brings strength.”

Waggonner also expressed concern over the average salary paid to board members, as well as the $285 paid to members to attend meetings. Right now, board member pay is uneven: An AL.com analysis showed that some members received as much as $22,000 in 2014, while others went unpaid.

“It’s been a good, sweetheart deal to serve on the Birmingham Water Works Board,” Waggonner said.

The proposal has gotten plenty of pushback from legislators and BWWB members, who cited figures showing sound management from the board and a commitment to serving its customers as well as smaller water authorities in surrounding counties.

Concern about board compensation were unfounded, BWWB General Commissioner Mac Underwood said. He testified that the board had actually decreased salary by 32 percent in recent years and travel expenses were down by at least 40 percent.

“This board has been frugal and doing what it should,” Underwood said. “We are driving down costs for customers.”

Rep. Louise Alexander questioned the need for statewide legislation, rather than a local bill for the affected counties. That language, argued BWWB member and environmental attorney Kevin McKie, means the proposal could could have much wider impact: “Any attorney can tell you that with a statewide bill, yes it does apply to you, if you grow big enough.”

Lawmakers plan to resume discussion on SB 89 and offer a final recommendation on Thursday morning. The discussion will likely include new amendments to address board diversity.

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