Utilities Board members: Mayor not paid extra

Published 12:12 am Thursday, August 16, 2012

All five members of the Utilities Board of the City of Andalusia agreed Wednesday that mayoral candidate Blaine Wilson made false statements about its operations on Tuesday, and said it would be highly unlikely that Wilson could dissolve the board if he were elected.

At a campaign event for his supporters held at Oakwood Lodge Tuesday, Wilson said that his opponent, incumbent Mayor Earl Johnson, is paid $60,000 by the board.

Each board member, including the mayor, who chairs the board, said that each of them receive the same pay – $350 per month, no matter how often they meet. Utilities Board office manager Cathy Alexander, who manages the financial affairs of the board, confirmed the same in an email to The Star-News last week.

“I make exactly the same thing the other board members make, $350 per month,” Johnson said. “For my job as superintendent, I make $0.”

“As a result of that, by me doing the job, it’s saving the Utilities Board, and thus the rate-payers, the salary, benefits, retirement and automobile of a superintendent, which would amount to about $125,000 per year. That equals $500,000 over the course of the past four years that we’ve saved the rate payers and the Utilities Board of Andalusia.”

Further, board member Ricky Jones said, the board couldn’t pay themselves or the mayor more if they wanted to.

“We don’t have the authority to change our pay,” Jones said. “The City Council has to make that decision.”

The Utilities Board’s current by-laws, which were approved in October of 2008 before the current city council took office, state that the board can hire a general manager, but neither the mayor nor any other elected official can serve in that capacity.

“Should the board, at its discretion, decide to employ a general manager, then the general manager shall not be an elected official of the City of Andalusia,” the by-laws state.

At the Tuesday event and in campaign ads, Wilson also has said that, if elected, he would dissolve the Utilities Board and use the stipends currently paid to board member to hire a jobs recruiter.

But board members said dissolving the board would be a complicated matter.

Jones served with Max Matthews and Ivan Bishop on the water board that was a precursor to the current Utilities Board, and remains on this board. He also represents the local board on the PowerSouth board.

Jones said there are two reasons the current Utilities Board couldn’t be dissolved.

First, such action would require a four-fifths vote of the Utilities Board to recommend the action, followed by a majority vote of the council to approve it.

“Otherwise, it couldn’t be dissolved,” Jones said.

Councilman Terry Powell, who also serves on the Utilities Board, and who was on the council when the by-laws were approved in October of 2008, also agreed that the by-laws make it almost impossible to dissolve the board.

Article X of the by-laws, approved by Resolution 2008-08 of the Andalusia City Council, says, “These by-laws may be altered, amended or repealed and new by-laws may be adopted by a vote of the total number of members of the board then serving, less one.” It then states that “Any proposed changes to the Articles of Incorporation of the Board to be submitted to the City Council for approval must be approved by a total number of members of the board then serving, less one.”

Jones explained that – by its by-laws – the Utilities Board includes three members of the public, the mayor, and one city council member. The three public members serve staggered six-year terms, Jones said, designed so that one administration can’t “stack” the board.

For instance, he said, the three public members of the board currently serving – Jones, Ashton Wells and Jim Smith – were appointed by three different administrations. Jones was appointed originally and has been subsequently re-appointed; Wells was appointed by the Jerry Andrews administration; and Smith by the current Johnson administration.

Both Jones and Johnson said that dissolving the Utilities Board would create problems with the board’s debt.

“If it was (dissolved), you’ve got to agree that the city would take over the bonded indebtedness,” Jones said.

Even if the council agreed, current debt likely would have to be refinanced, Johnson said, because the terms of the bond issue are structured with the Utilities Board.

Wilson also has said that, if elected, he would lower power rates, and specifically that he would lower them for senior citizens.

Jones said the Utilities Board has a long-term contract to purchase wholesale power from PowerSouth for the next 45 to 50 years. PowerSouth needed the long-term commitments of its member municipalities and cooperatives before it embarked on a project for part ownership in a nuclear power plant in Augusta, Ga., he said.

“We don’t have any way of going in there and saying this residential customer or that residential customer can pay less,” Jones said. “All we have is to fill within buckets.

“By law and through our bond agreements, we are to have a rate schedule, and abide by the rate schedule,” Jones said. “There is no way to discriminate for or against anyone by age, race or sex. We’d get in all kinds of discrimination suits if we tried to do that.”

Jones said while it is not the board’s job to be profitable, per se, it does need to earn a margin that allows for upkeep and maintenance on the system.

“If we didn’t reinvest in new equipment, new poles, and new wiring, over time, our service level would be horrible.”

Each month, board members receive a report from PowerSouth comparing its rates to the rates of other municipalities and cooperatives in the PowerSouth system.

“We are fourth from the lowest rate,” Jones said. “There is only one municipality that is cheaper than us, and that’s Brundidge. Opp is considerably higher than we are, and they’ve had rate cuts recently.”

Powell said it is important for Utilities Board members and others in the community to speak the truth.

“I really do believe that good people have got to stand up and say we are not going to tolerate these untruths,” Powell said of the false statements.