‘We’re $20 or 30 million behind’: BWWB chairman in exclusive audio worries utility couldn’t handle new meter-reading tech

Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 4:11 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - On Sept. 1, Birmingham’s mayor applied new pressure to the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) in the wake of our reporting on several issues there including overdue and incorrect bills.

Mayor Randall Woodfin tweeted a thread that claims the water works board back in 2016 blocked the utility from buying technology that would automatically read your water meter, instead of relying on meter readers to come to your house every month.

BIrmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin tweeted new criticism of the utility's board Thursday.
BIrmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin tweeted new criticism of the utility's board Thursday.(Twitter)

The mayor points out that Spire, Alabama Power, and smaller water systems like Trussville use this technology and calls it “ridiculous” that BWWB doesn’t.

“The mayor’s position is clear: He wants the Birmingham Water Works customers taken care of. That is non-negotiable,” said Rick Journey, Director of Communications for the City of Birmingham.

He’s calling for the board to allow the general manager and his staff to hire a company to install that technology now.

It’s important to note, only two of the current board members were on the board back in 2016 - George Munchus and Ronald Mims - and the general manager back then no longer works at the BWWB.

The current chairman of the board told the water works staff at a committee meeting back in July that he’s not opposed to the idea of automated meter infrastructure, or “AMI,” but said the utility is already way behind on the projects it’s trying to do now.

BWWB Board Chair Chris Rice.
BWWB Board Chair Chris Rice.(WBRC-TV)

“We cannot and we will not move forward on this AMI unless this committee or this board as a whole sees what goes out this door before anybody comes in to help,” Chris Rice told the BWWB staff. “I want to make that clear because we’re behind now on projects where we don’t even know where we stand. We don’t know. We’re trying to drop what we’re behind on to try to put something else together that we’re gonna be behind on, we cannot do that. I want to know where we are on all of our capital projects. I want to know where we stand, how backed up we are, before we start talking about this AMI thing. I’m going to get to that after I see everything put together.”

Rice went on to say, “We’ve had too many projects, I can’t talk about one, but we know the one I want to talk about. We’re $20 or 30 million behind because of some decisions past board members made to get us to this position.”

While Rice didn’t name which project that is, we’ve reported that the renovation of the Shades Mountain treatment plant is now two years overdue and well over-budget, and the water works and its major contractor on that project are suing each other over the cost.

Sources also tell WBRC there is some belief that this new criticism of the board specifically may be related to efforts by Woodfin behind the scenes to change the makeup of the board.

We’ve reached out to the mayor’s office and the water works for comment and are waiting to hear back.

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