About WASA, from a former board member

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Recent public statements about the Peachtree City (City) Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) deserve clarification to avoid misleading the public. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can share a little dated sunlight that might help form smarter questions.

I never wanted to publicly disturb this hornet’s nest, but now I feel a duty. Before getting to current issues, I first need to drag you through the unsavory pit of old dirty laundry to help you understand my attitude.

I was on the WASA board from early 2013 to mid-2014. If you want to see faces twist in discomfort at WASA, as if they were breathing from a broken sewer pipe, just mention my name. From the start, I asked questions that upset the comfort zone of board members, General Manager Stephen Hogan and WASA employees, who lined the walls at every board meeting, watching closely over their own interest. I posed these questions that challenged the status quo and provoked much resentment:

1. Why does WASA pay a PR firm to create glossy promos as inserts to the bill mailings, spinning everything positive as if customers had choices among competing sewer services?

2. Why was there no capital improvement plan for maintenance, equipment replacement and plant expansion, and why did GM Hogan become as slippery as a greased eel when I asked for one with best-guess budgets projected out five years?

3. With millions in the bank beyond debt service and budgeted projects, why is there no board interest in considering rate reductions, given that rates are high by comparison? I know the need for a utility to be financially strong in case of emergency repairs, but at some point the ratepayers should be the priority.

4. Why would the board not consider smoothing out the artificial billing increase in the summer, which still bumps customer cost and WASA revenue simply because residents water their lawn — sewer bills are a function of water consumption.

5. With myriad employee benefits at the time, why did WASA have a policy to pay a $1,500 bonus to employees who achieved a new professional license, even after WASA paid for the coursework?

6. What is the rationale for accumulating WASA employee unused sick pay forever in a mounting bank of paid time off?

7. Why was the Board and GM Hogan far more focused on the benefit of employees than ratepayers?

8. Was it justifiable for WASA employees to continue receiving COLA and merit raises and bonuses, even during those economically tough years when City employees received no raises at all?

For an equivalent WASA and city employee at that time, after five years the WASA employee’s compensation was far ahead. That doesn’t mean WASA has to conform to city salary policies; they don’t. But there is another reason compensation is out of whack by comparison, if you can bear to read the following.

I didn’t agree at the time with [former City Councilman] Eric Imker’s tilting at the WASA windmill with his open records requests trying to find out all the nooks and crannies of employee compensation.

But, as I would find over time, Mr. Imker only uncovered part of the story. He didn’t know to use in his requests the magic words “longevity pay,” and it was not revealed to him. I didn’t know to ask with those magic words, either, and it was not revealed to me until I stumbled on it by my own internal digging into personnel matters.

Longevity pay at WASA, a long-established program started in 2001, was paid to WASA employees in early December, calculated as one-half of 1 percent of annual salary for each year of WASA employment up to a maximum of 20 years. This was one of many employee benefits, justified to retain good employees even though turnover has historically been close to zero.

Some argued it was in lieu of a defined benefit retirement plan, even though they already had a defined contribution retirement plan. It was essentially expected as a Christmas bonus unconnected to performance criteria.

In December 2012, new employees received longevity pay of $250 while the average for all employees was nearly $2,400 each and the highest individual amount was over $6,200, with amounts increasing annually as salaries rise and the number of years of employment accumulate. Even if I had the information, which I don’t, publicizing employee names and amounts would be inappropriate.

I felt this longevity pay policy was out of line, and I was the detested guy who led the effort to kill it. As I told employees in a meeting on the topic, in a public organization, bonuses should be rare, modest and for performance above and beyond expectations, and this longevity pay policy was none of these things.

With much turmoil, the board decided late in 2013 to cut it in half for the December just around the corner, with the board’s documented intent to discontinue longevity pay altogether thereafter, even though one board cannot bind another.

In early 2014 I was elected chairman despite my request not to be in that position. In the middle of that year a minor but distasteful incident prompted me to conclude I did not then and would never be able to trust anything GM Hogan told me. With my gag reflex stretched beyond its limit, I abruptly resigned, fully disclosing to the board and GM Hogan my reasons. I returned to life where the sky is blue.

If you observed that I had a duty to stay at WASA to persuade my fellow board members on improvements, or that I should have departed in a more productive way, you would have a very strong argument. But, that experience reinforced what I already knew, that I am a complete misfit for management by committee, and I had all I was willing to take.

John Dufresne had been a new board member at the time of my exit from WASA. A year or two later, I asked him at Mimi’s if WASA had reinstated longevity bonuses after my departure. He said, yes, the WASA board put longevity pay back in place after I was gone. When I asked why, John said nobody ever removed it from the personnel manual, so they had no choice.

I have long wondered if I would ever have a circumstance close to me wherein stupid could be used as a defense. I think I found it.

Now that you have a grip on my critical attitude, on to more recent issues.

Despite the recent newspaper headline about WASA declaring independence from the city, so far as I know nothing at all about the structure of the relationship has changed. But it has not been adequately explained.

When the bonds to finance WASA were negotiated, to obtain the desired lower rate of interest, bondholders required that the city guarantee WASA’s repayment of the bonds. In exchange for that city guarantee, the city required that its approval would be necessary before WASA could offer sewer services outside the city. That same guarantee and condition was part of bond refunding in subsequent years. Last time I looked, the bonds don’t pay off until 2027.

Mark Oldenburg, WASA counsel, is a very good attorney and he vigorously represents his client. Whether he has found legal wiggle room in that city condition for the guarantee, I don’t know.

A recent article implied the Tyrone service opportunity was lost because of the city’s naive politics. I would argue that is not even close to true. City Manager Jon Rorie, representing the City Council, composed an inter-governmental agreement in which Tyrone would be required to pay what the city considered reasonable fees to buy into sewer connection and service.

Tyrone chose to set that deal aside and pursue sewer service through Fairburn and Fulton County. Meanwhile, Mr. Rorie won’t disclose those fees and terms to me or publicly, and he isn’t going to respond to inaccurate articles to defend the city.

To clear away the smoke, here are the type questions I would ask about sewer expansion beyond the city.

Of WASA’s current capacity of 6 MGD (million gallons per day), 2 MGD is from the older Line Creek plant, built in 1979 with a 1 MGD north side basin, and a 1 MGD south side basin added in 1982. GM Hogan told me there is no time limit on the Line Creek plant. Realistically, how long will that plant last to sustain that 2 MGD capacity?

Since WASA already has the financial strength to reduce rates if desired, what assurance do ratepayers have that additional revenue from serving more customers will thereby contain future rate increases?

Why does WASA continue to charge ratepayers a premium in the summer merely because they water their lawn?

Before serving new customers outside the city, shouldn’t WASA consider expanding service to city residents still on a septic system without charging excessive connection fees?

In any case of expansion to serve customers outside the city, what are the risks of uncontrollable development expansion? Personally, I would only trust an analysis of that risk performed by the city.

What limits a new customer outside the city from expanding and requiring service of MGD beyond the initial agreement?

Will the new customer pay for lines, pumps and lift stations required to connect, and will there be a connection fee?

If questions like these are satisfactorily answered, serving a customer outside the city could be beneficial because the infrastructure, equipment and personnel at the wastewater treatment plant already exist, and with little added electric power and chemicals, the lion’s share of new revenue should fall to the bottom line. That would be good for WASA.

But such questions have NOT been satisfactorily answered. And I’m sure more knowledgeable people have even more questions, so the caution flag still flies.

When I first joined the WASA Board, I was opposed to the occasional chatter about deconstructing WASA as an authority and bringing the sewer operation into the city organization. The primary argument for creating an independent authority long ago was to keep politics out of WASA.

But it is full of politics anyway, and there are countless examples of wastewater treatment systems being part of city or county government as well as being independent authorities.

Because the city applies a great deal of effort planning for developments and what happens on city borders, and because a sewer line with available capacity plays a vital role in adjacent development density, and because of the history of strife between WASA and the city, I would now vote in a heartbeat to bring WASA under city management. Of course doing so is a steep climb up the legislative mountain.

Finally, since I have spilled herein some negative thoughts about WASA, here’s some positives. The plant works well. There are a number of fine people employed at WASA, working hard every day, scrambling when something breaks to restore service.

And here’s something positive old and new on the board. Phil Mahler has been on the WASA Board for many years, always prepared, focused on detail and serious. I enjoyed working with Phil, even when we disagreed. Whenever you retire from WASA, Phil, thanks for long and faithful service. New guy Bob Grove is an alternate. When he becomes a voting board member, Bob will be a strong advocate of ratepayers, a smart guy and quick study.

The WASA issue for me has been like a sleeping dog, best left alone to have peace in my life. Lately it turned into a hornet’s nest that needed a swift kick. So I’m standing by to be stung.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]