Residents rally to ‘flush’ sewer sale by county

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 13, 2005

In hopes that their opposition will be heard loud and clear by Shelby County commissioners, homeowners in Eagle Point and Greystone have formed an organization to fight the proposed sale of the north Shelby County sewer system, which could be finalized within the next few weeks.

The organization, Friends Linked Up to Stop Sewer System Heist, is financing an advertising campaign against the sewer system sale, and Mary Sue Ludwig, a member of FLUSSSH, said the organization wants every sewer system customer to be aware of the current negotiations between Shelby County and the California firm, Southwest Water Company.

Ludwig was one of 12 community members who spoke in opposition to the sewer system sale at the public hearing on June 28, where plans for the sale were presented to the county commission.

She said the $8.5 million being offered to the county for the 4,400-customer system is only half of its appraised value.

Shelby County Commissioner Dan Acker agreed the price was only half the appraised value; but, he said the county is offering to sell the system at a lower price in order to include terms in the contract that would protect customers, such as an 8 percent cap on rate increases per year for 11 years.

Ludwig said Eagle Point and Greystone homeowners disagree that the 8 percent cap protects them.

Charles Lay, Shelby County utilities manager, said the county is still in negotiations with Southwest and protecting the current sewer customers continues to be a goal.

In addition to the 8 percent cap on rate increases, Lay said the contract will also require the company to maintain the system and continue with current odor control measures.

Acker added that private company ownership could save the county from having to pay expensive improvements needed to comply with state environmental standards.

Ludwig said she is vehemently opposed to private company ownership of the system.

She said she’s concerned the company will value financial gain over the community’s interests.

The $8.5 million gained from the sewer system sale would go toward the construction of a $75 million water treatment plant on the Coosa River, which would serve 32,000 accounts, Lay said.

&uot;We are trying to turn an asset that serves a small number into something that serves a lot of people,&uot; he said.

Acker agreed. &uot;100,000 people will benefit from the sale of the sewer,&uot; he said.

If the county doesn’t build a water treatment plant, everyone will pay a higher price for water in the future, he said.

The county has been investigating options to fund a water treatment plant since 2001, and Lay said selling the system is the most viable option.

He said the treatment plant would be funded by proceeds of the sale, bonds and a $13 million reserve.

Jim Causey, an Eagle Point resident, said he supports the building of a water treatment plant; however, he does not believe it should be funded with rate increases which could build to $75 per month by 2017 if the sale goes through. Residents currently pay $32.45 per month.

&uot;My God, no where in the country is it that high,&uot; Causey said. &uot;I don’t know what they’re doing. They seem to think that’s protecting us.&uot;

He said the county already has enough funds in its $13 million reserve to support the construction of a water treatment plant, and the remaining costs could be subsidized by bonds or reasonable rate increases, an alternative upon which Ludwig and members of FLUSSSH agree.

Ludwig said she is not in favor of using the entire reserve, which she believed was collected to finance system repairs, to fund the construction of a water treatment plant.

&uot;If you take every dime we have paid, we’ll have to pay again,&uot; she said. &uot;I don’t think that is morally right. I don’t know if it’s legal; but I know it’s not moral.&uot;

Acker said however, the reserve was built with commercial tap fees and residential tap fees from the past two years.

The county never promised that the reserve would be used to fund system repairs, he said.

As for the price increase, Acker said other systems in the Birmingham area currently charge $75 to $100 each month. Jefferson County charges $5.93 per 100 cubic feet water.

Customers on the north Shelby sewer system have not had a rate increase in about eight years, he said, and sewer rates of $75 are not out of the ordinary.

Lay said opposition to the sale has not affected negotiations with Southwest or the proposed contract, which will be presented to the County Commission soon.

Lay said he plans to post responses to concerns raised at the public hearing on the county’s website,

In the meantime, Ludwig said a number of FLUSSSH members are making plans to attend the July 25 commission meeting, when she believes the sale will be discussed