Prichard water board member says utility is in danger of shutting down

Chairman, attorney say arrangements will be made after last sewage treatment plant operator leaves Friday
Published: Jun. 29, 2022 at 6:14 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The Prichard water board held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the impending departure of its last sewage treatment plant operator, with one member warning the utility could be shut down.

Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board Chairman Russell Heidelburg and utility attorney Jay Ross downplayed that nightmare scenario, although they acknowledged the system will have to act quickly to make temporary arrangements.

The utility recently lost its plant manager. A plant operator and utility operations manager Michael McClantoc are set to depart soon. Board members John Johnson Jr. and Cherry Doyle said Heidelburg has failed to keep them informed of the personnel issues and accused him of mismanaging the finances.

“We are currently two days away from closing due to the negligent, selfish behavior of our chairman,” Johnson said.

Added Johnson: “This is very, very negligent behavior that has resulted in driving the nail, the final nail in the Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board’s casket.”

Heidelburg said during the meeting that the system would find a way to keep the plant operating, one way or another.

“If we cannot hire an operator, then we would have to try and get an operator under contract, or we can get an operator part time,” he said. “If we can’t do that, we would probably end up having to get a company to either let us use their operator to run the plan or get the company to run the plant.”

The staffing shortage adds to a long list of woes that the Prichard water system experienced over the past couple of years. Its former operations manager, Nia Malika Bradley, has been charged criminally. Federal agents raided its headquarters in February. Customers have sued over high bills. And there’s a long-running legal fight with the city of Prichard over fire hydrants.

McClantoc said during the meeting that one employee left because of a personal issue and the other is leaving because he got a new job paying more money.

Ross said after the meeting that McClantoc has a health issue that is causing him to step down but that he might say on a part-time basis for a time.

“I don’t think the threat of closing doors is really accurate,” he said. “It may just be, perhaps, an overstatement to emphasize the critical needs of the board to keep and find and retain qualified sewer operators.”

Also on Wednesday, the board voted 5-0 to offer employees a one-time $250 bonus. Johnson and Doyle said they voted for the measure but hope the board will revisit a failed effort to pass a 5 percent cost-of-living pay increase. That proposal failed earlier this month on a 2-2 vote amid concerns over whether the utility could afford the increase.

Doyle said she voted for the bonus even though it is not enough to retain employees.

“There’s no funds because our chairperson has decided spend the money that comes through that door the way he wants to spend it and not the way it should be spent,” she said.

As an example, Doyle pointed to a “mystery mechanic” that the utility has paid about $1,500 a week and as much as $7,0000 this month.

“Who is this mechanic? I guess we have to ask Jesus, because I never seen him,” she said.

In addition, the board voted 3-2 Wednesday to hire BMSS Advisors & CPAs to perform a fiscal year 2021 audit. Johnson and Doyle voted “no” because they did not have an opportunity to interview representatives of the firm.

Updated at 10:22 p.m. with additional information.

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