Alabama Legislature

Birmingham City Council Working on Plan for Overhaul of Water Works Board

As the Alabama Legislature considers a complete overhaul of the Birmingham Water Works Board, the Birmingham City Council is mulling its own legislation to meet state lawmakers halfway.

For the second week in a row, the council on Tuesday postponed action on an ordinance that would place additional prerequisites on its BWWB appointees. The proposal, which first appeared on the council’s April 11 agenda, would tighten background and training requirements for council appointees.

The language in the delayed ordinance closely echoes a bill currently being considered by the Alabama Legislature, which would add similar strictures to board appointees. But the Legislature’s bill, HB177, would go much further, firing all current board members and reducing the number of BWWB directors from nine to seven — removing two council-appointed seats from the board entirely.

As it stands, the Birmingham Water Works Board consists of nine members, four of whom are appointed by the council and two of whom are appointed by the mayor of Birmingham. The remaining three seats are divided among the Jefferson County Mayors Association, the Shelby County Commission and the Blount County Commission.

In addition to cutting two council-appointed seats, HB177 would require that all appointees to the BWWB be experienced in business affairs and capable of understanding and managing the complexity of the operation of a water or sewer system.” It would also mandate that appointees “obtain training on the duties and best practices of directors of organizations engaged in the operation of water or sewer systems.”

BWWB members also would have to receive training on the Alabama Ethics Act and state financial reporting requirements, and would be required not to have had a business relationship with the board for two years prior to their appointment.

These requirements — minus the trimmed board seats, naturally — are repeated almost verbatim in the council’s proposed ordinance, as is HB177’s stipulation that one council appointee have a background in finance and another a background in engineering. The mayor’s two appointees would also be subject to those requirements if the bill is passed.

Representative Jim Carns, R-Vestavia Hills, the bill’s sponsor, said he was attempting to address an “ongoing problem” at the board, which has drawn drawn sharp criticism over the past year for billing issues, which saw roughly 13,000 households over-billed. In September, Mayor Randall Woodfin claimed that the board’s repeated blocking of bids for automatic meter readings was “victimizing” BWWB customers; shortly afterward, BWWB chair Christopher Rice resigned.

Current BWWB Chair Tereshia Huffman has opposed HB177, maintaining that the board is “steering… in the right direction” under her leadership. She said the board has issued a request for proposals for automatic meter reading.

“We are going to have a project management consultant come in, look at our system, and tell us what is the best way to do things. We are going to look at billing issues and see what can we do better,” she told WBRC earlier this month. “Give us the time to do those things. I have been chairwoman for four months, and in my four months, Im fighting this bill, as well as making sure we are coming up with better policies for our board.”

HB177 was narrowly approved by the House Commerce and Small Business Committee on April 12, positioning it to appear before the full House before the end of the 2023 legislative session in June.

The council, meanwhile, is expected to next discuss its proposed ordinance during its May Committee of the Whole meeting.