Residents share frustrations over sewer rates at town hall meeting

By AMY JONES / Associate Editor

NORTH SHELBY — Some local customers served by a local sewer system — the North Shelby Wastewater Treatment Plant, owned by SouthWest Water Company — are saying their annual rate hikes are unfair.

Homeowners association board members from several different North Shelby neighborhoods held a town hall meeting Feb. 4 for residents to discuss concerns about sewer rates, which they say have risen 165 percent since 2005, with County Commissioners Lindsey Allison and Rick Shepherd, Water Services Manager Charles Lay and County Manager Alex Dudchock.

SouthWest Water purchased the sewer system from the county in 2005. The system currently serves 4,020 residential customers and 255 commercial customers, according to Dudchock.

Event organizer Tim O’Dell posed prepared questions to the county officials, including a question about whether it is reasonable for rates to continue to rise.

“To say what’s reasonable, we’d have to make a lot of assumptions (about things) we don’t know today and we won’t know tomorrow,” Allison said.

O’Dell also asked when, if ever, the county had audited SouthWest Water’s financial and accounting practices.

“We don’t audit. We’re not required to audit,” said Allison, who added, however, that she believed the commission would audit SouthWest if it saw data that prompted such an action.

After the prepared questions, members of the audience were invited to ask questions or give comments. One audience member from Greystone said he had attempted to contact Dudchock, Lay, Allison and Shepherd, but had heard nothing from any of them and felt he and other residents weren’t getting the representation or advocacy they deserved.

“You’re not giving me any confidence in you at all,” he said.

Dudchock then stood and, speaking to the audience member, said he was unaware of any questions he or his staff had received from members of the public that had gone unanswered.

“You referenced one of my staff members,” Dudchock said, gesturing toward Lay, “and I think you were grossly out of line.”

Dudchock then urged Lay to leave the meeting, which Lay did.

Rick Shepherd spoke to the crowd, saying he understands residents’ situation because he is a Greystone resident.

“We’re trying to help you guys. We’re not SouthWest water,” he said. “We’re not making a penny off this. I don’t want to pay (these fees) any more than you guys do.”

Shepherd said he has spoken to SouthWest about changing the rate system from a flat rate to a usage-based rate. SouthWest has said they will consider the change and get back to him with thoughts, Shepherd said.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Craig Sorensen, general manager of SouthWest, said the company “is open to” moving to a usage-based rate, but doing so would be “complex” because North Shelby is served by multiple water systems rather than just one.

Sorensen said the rate increases are, in part, in response to a treatment plant upgrade to meet new state and federal environmental regulations for the Cahaba River basin.

“The costs of the phosphorus upgrade that we just completed are actually more than we paid for the entire system in 2005,” Sorensen said.

SouthWest paid $8.5 million for the sewer system; the cost of the recent phosphorus upgrade was $9 million, he said.

“Our expenses are real, and this is a large expense, unfortunately, on a small number of customers,” he said. “The expenses that are driving the increases are all documented.”

During the town hall meeting, O’Dell said rate increase projections show that SouthWest customers could pay more than $100 per month for sewer services beginning in 2015.

Sorensen responded to that claim, saying, “I would say that there are lots of people that have $100 sewer bills right now in the Birmingham area. That’s one of those things that can be addressed in the fee structure if we do consider moving away from the flat fee.”

SouthWest has a customer assistance program for any customer that needs help paying bills. Interested customers should call the customer service number, which is on the monthly bill, Sorensen said.