Prichard water customers worry about rates as new boss meets employees

Prichard water customers worry about rates as new boss meets employees
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 6:40 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The man appointed by a judge to take control of the Prichard water system was in town Wednesday to meet employees of the troubled utility.

John S. Young Jr., the so-called receiver, has broad powers to operate the system as he sees fit without approval of the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board. That includes the power to hike rates.

Young comes to his new duties as court-appointed receiver of the Prichard water system with tons of experience. He previously was president of American Water Co.,, served as a receiver of the bankrupt Jefferson County sewer system in 2010 and helped lead recovery efforts of the troubled Flint, Michigan, water system.

The New Jersey resident spoke briefly with FOX10 News but said he was just starting to get a lay of the land.

Meanwhile, the water board is not giving up. Its lawyers this week asked Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter to put his order appointing the receiver on hold while the system appeals.

Carletta Davis, president of We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, said she worries about higher rates on top of the 22 percent hike that took effect this month.

“If we know that what he is proposing is not in the best interest of the community, then we will do whatever measures we have to take to make sure that he is stopped,” she said.

But other than an appeal to the judge, there are few limits on Young’s authority. And his first priority is making sure investors who loaned the system $55.8 million in 2019 get their money back.

Davis said Young told her when he came to testify at a hearing last month that he is willing to work with the community.

“And at this point, you know, I want to hold him to that,” she said. “And we’ll see.”

The water board earlier this year passed the rate hike in an attempt to solve the problem that triggered the lawsuit by Synovus Bank. Davis said it has caused a hardship to a poverty-stricken city. She said she hopes Young holds the line.

“We’re very concerned about that,” she said. “Water is essential for life. It should be clean; it should be safe; it should be affordable.”

One suggestion the judge took from the We Matter group is the creation of a 15-member citizens advisory council that will include representatives from both Prichard and Chickasaw. The Chickasaw City Council wasted no time taking advantage of that, appointing Mayor Barry Broadhead and Councilwoman Jennifer White on Tuesday night.

Broadhead said his city long has been neglected.

“There has been no infrastructure improvements in many decades,” he said. “Some neighborhoods have never had rolling replacement of the infrastructure since the original neighborhoods (were) put in.”

Broadhead has been pushing for months to buy out the utility of its share of the assets so that it can start its own water and sewer system. That, like so much else, will be up to Young.

“We will be very interested to meet and have discussions with the receiver as soon as he’s available for those meetings and present our offer and make our case,” Broadhead said. “We feel that the city of Chickasaw is in the best position to address the needs of our citizens.”

Broadhead said he will be keeping an eye on potential rate increases. He noted that his city has no representation on the water board and had no say in previous hikes.

“Chickasaw has not had a voice in any of that,” he said.

Even though the new advisory council will have no power to make binding decisions, Chickasaw City Councilman Jim Trout said it still offers more influence for his city than it had under the water board.

“At least we’re gonna have some voice and some input into the decision on this advisory committee,” he said. “And we like that.”

The water board’s attorneys argued in their latest court filing that having a receiver in charge of the system could cause disruption in operations and customer confusion that cannot easily be undone if the Alabama Supreme Court ultimately overturns the judge’s ruling.

“If this Court’s Receivership Order is incorrect, then hundreds of thousands of public funds will be wasted on a receiver during this appeal,” the board states. “A stay is needed to prevent the needless waste of public funds during the pendency of this appeal.

Full interview with Carletta Davis, president of We Matter Eight Mile Community Association