Birmingham Water Works’ solution to customer billing issues? Bring back the old boss

The Birmingham Water Works Board has hired its former chief executive as a consultant to resolve persistent customer billing issues.

On Tuesday, the Birmingham Water Works board approved a plan to bring in Macaroy Underwood of Underwood Financial Consultants, LLC, to carry out a detailed review and analysis of customer billings and collections from January 1, 2022 through July 31, 2022.

Underwood served as the utility’s chief executive from 2005 to 2018.

Board chairman Christopher Rice said an official start date for Underwood has not been decided, but will be soon.

Rice said it was a short-term fix and stressed the importance of having a second look at the billing issues Water Works customers have been dealing with for nearly a year.

Some 13,000 of Birmingham Water Works’ 200,000 customers in the five-county metropolitan area are not billed based on actual usage meter readings. Instead, as the Lede has previously reported, thousands of customers have gone months without an invoice, some since October, and many in June received multiple invoices with estimates from system officials who, according to officials from the system, are based on billings from previous months.

These estimated bills, which Water Works staff said were necessitated by a lack of meter readers – due to COVID and a tough hiring market – had totals that, in some cases, exceeded away from the typical previous bills.

In addition to the lack of invoices and estimated billings, the Lede also previously reported that several customers were being overcharged on the utility’s automatic payment system.

The recommendation for Underwood’s services was passed to the Water Works board by their finance committee last week, though several board members questioned whether it was a legal or ethical choice. given Underwood’s history as a former general manager.

Water Works attorney Mike Parnell said there were no legal or ethical issues with former employees viewing current Water Works documents due to a “revolving door” policy, which generally regulates how government employees can transfer to private practices.

Parnell said under that policy, former Water Works employees were allowed to work with the company after two or more years of absence.

This follows AL Code § 36-25-13 (2019), a code of ethics for public officials and employees, which states that no public official shall serve for remuneration as a lobbyist or represent clients, including his employer before the board, agency, commission, department or legislative body, of which he is a former member for a period of two years after leaving office.

Montgomery’s attorney, Dennis Bailey, a media law expert and adviser to the Alabama Press Association, said he was not aware of any state law prohibiting former employees from working with government entities. or view current customer records after that time, and that would be something decided by local laws or regulations within a business itself.

Birmingham Water Works does not have its own code surrounding the issue, but follows the state code of ethics.

At this week’s board meeting, second vice president Tereshia Huffman expressed doubts that Underwood Financial would provide a solution to current billing issues. She confirmed to Water Works director Michael Johnson that when Underwood was chief executive, he had a record of more than 20,000 customers receiving increased bills during his tenure.

“Why do we bring back a general manager to do an audit when he himself had increased his bills?” Huffman said. “Did anyone audit him when he had them?”

Rice replied that he thought Underwood was the best person for the job because he resolved previous billing issues as general manager and established the billing system that Water Works currently uses.

Jefferson County District 2 Commissioner Sheila Tyson, who was not present at the meeting, said she does not believe the council’s current solution will solve her constituents’ billing issues.

“There’s a reason he (Underwood) doesn’t work there anymore,” Tyson said. “If he solved his billing issues, why are we still seeing them? »

Tyson added that she has received calls this week from people in her district who are not receiving bills or who have recently received bills for unexpectedly large amounts.

“You don’t have room to make mistakes when it’s going to affect a person’s whole quality of life,” Tyson said. “I could easily be wrong, but from the outside I don’t see it (solving the problem).”

Underwood could not be reached for comment.

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