A trio of Jefferson County commissioners met today with the Birmingham Water Works Board, asking the board to consider matching the county’s $1.25 million commitment to help residents who struggle with rising water and sewer rates.
After Commissioners Joe Knight, Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson spoke, the board voted to move the matter to its finance committee for consideration.
The commission last week passed its $700 million budget for fiscal 2020, which included $1.25 million to assist residents most affected by annually rising sewer fees.
Knight, the chairman of the commission’s finance committee, Scales, the county liaison to the BWWB, and Tyson sought a commitment from the BWWB to match the earmarked amount to help ratepayers with their water bills.
Board member George Munchus said today’s discussion may be the start of a different kind of relationship between the County Commission and the Birmingham Water Works Board.
“We have been adversaries in court for different reasons,” Munchus said, “but maybe we can bury the hatchet – I’m trying to stay open minded – and look at how we can partner on some other things. There might be some opportunities to explore on bringing down the cost of operations on both sides.”
Knight said details including qualifications to receive assistance and what nonprofit agency doles out the money have yet to be determined.
“That’s something to be worked out,” he said. “There are challengers out there. We’re hearing that, ‘You can’t do that,’ so we’re having our legal team assess it fully. What we don’t want to do is start a program, start helping somebody and then we have to get tied up in court for years. If this is something we can work together on, that would be great.”
Board member William Muhammad asked whether the county’s sewer relief allocation has been established for years to come. Knight said no.
“It’s in this year’s budget,” he said. “We’re working on it for the future. It’s not perpetual, there’s no commitment for it to be perpetual. It has to be addressed each year.”
Already, Birmingham Water Works has its H2O Foundation, which Muhammad said has been paying sewer bills and water bills for 19 years.
“We have paid $1.9 million since the inception of the H20 Foundation,” he said.
Munchus said a number of “deep pocket corporations in this community want to help. You just have to approach them with something that’s doable. The H2O Foundation has worked reasonably well over the years. I don’t see any reason this can’t happen and I’m going to be supportive of it.”
Scales said the commission did not want to administer any assistance funds from the BWWB, just to get help to people who need it. She acknowledged that the earmarked amount may fall short of aiding everyone who needs it.
“What we’ve done is the heavy lifting – appropriate and earmark that money for this particular purpose,” she said. “All we’re asking is for you to help the same customer base by way of our residents. If you would do that in a short and timely manner, that would be greatly appreciated by the commission.”