Water woes in Whitehouse Fork?


WHITEHOUSE FORK, Alabama — For nearly five decades, the White House Water System has provided water service for its customers in the Whitehouse, Crossroads and Bromley communities of North Baldwin County.

And while officials with the Water System say they are financially sound and are working to fix what they call minor problems with the system, some of the Water System’s member/customers are looking to an alternative to provide service.

“I just want people to know that there is an alternative out there,” said Jacob Byrd. “I think if people know there is an alternative that will provide better service at a lower rate, they will be on board with us.”

A lifelong resident of Whitehouse Fork, Byrd currently lives with his parents, Sam and Susan Byrd, but has purchased property in the Whitehouse Fork community where he has built a barn and plans to build a home.

It was there that he began to have problems with his water pressure and discoloration of his water.

“They told me it was dirt dobbers and that it would clear up on its own,” he said. “I just don’t believe that.”

After he says he didn’t get the answers he sought from the Water System, Byrd went to North Baldwin General Manager Jason M. Padgett with his concerns and discovered there were others who had similar problems.

At the request of the members who share Byrd’s concerns, North Baldwin Utilities General Manager Jason M. Padgett wrote a letter last October to then Board President Ruffin Crook, offering the Whitehouse Water Board to consider an offer for NBU to acquire the system.

“Over the last three months, North Baldwin Utilities has received more than three dozen calls/visits asking for help with suggestions on rates, service interruptions and dirty water complaints,” according to the letter.

In a telephone interview, Padgett stated that the offer to take over the system was first presented to the WHWS Board 10 years ago.

At the time, a meeting was held and the Water System Board decided not to take NBU up on its offer.

Padgett said he decided to update the letter when he began receiving calls, many of which came from employees at NBU.

“They were asking me what we can do about these issues,” he said, “and unless NBU has control over the system, there’s not much we can do.”

In the letter, Padgett spelled out 13 what he called “significant elements” in North Baldwin Utilities offer to acquire White House Water System, including:

•Monthly water service usage charged (both minimum billings and unit usage rates) to current White House customers will be immediately reduced by approximately 35 percent, based upon minimum usage, realized from savings due to economics of scale and elimination of operational redundancies. The reduction would be immediate.

•Monthly water service charged within the current White House service area will not be increased thereafter for a period of at least two years from transaction date.

•Subsequent to the initial two-year period, monthly water service charged within the current White House service area could be subject to adjustment only to the extent and magnitudes as for all comparable customers within the NBU system.

•New customer connection charges and service policies will be the same as for a comparable new customer within the NBU system.

•All debts and assets of White House will be transferred to NBU.

•Any cash balances that may remain in any White House accounts after payment of all White House debts will be dedicated to funding water system infrastructure improvements (for example replacement of current undersized 6-inch water lines) within the current White House service area. It is estimated that NBU would spend approximately $1 million upgrading the water lines.

•Current White House employees will be provided employment opportunity with NBU.

•Fully staff two, three-person crews for distribution needs within the current WHWS territory.

•NBU will continue its and White House’s tradition of closely cooperating with local volunteer fire departments, community organizations and churches with the communities.

•NBU will initiate activities to enhance the reliability and effectiveness of water service within the service area of White House.

•NBU will maintain the current business office which will be fully staffed.

•NBU will establish an advisory board, to meet monthly, to represent water service interests of the community to the NBU Board of Directors.

•NBU will maintain the “Whitehouse” name on the current water tower.

When the Water System was created in the early 1970s, Padgett said, it received all of its water from North Baldwin Utilities. A few years ago the Water Authority dug a well that produces some water for the system (NBU still provides about 80 to 90 percent of the system’s water.

“One of the biggest issues that we have is that the well causes additional water pressure on the lines,” Padgett said, “and some of the older lines are unable to withstand the added pressure, which has caused breaks.”

There has also been an issue with imbalanced pH levels in the water, causing discoloration in the water called “Blue Water,” Padgett said.

At the Water System’s membership meeting in April, Byrd and others expressed concerns about customer service, the length of time it takes the Water System to respond to issues in a timely manner. There have also been issues of ADEM violations and the way the day-to-day operations of the System is run.

A lot of that, Byrd said, is due in large part to the fact that the Water System has expanded through the years, running lines down Alabama 225 reaching areas as far south as Spanish Fort. Byrd said the system currently has about 2,300 customers.

“I have a lot of respect for those who set up the Water System and what they have been able to accomplish over the years,” Byrd said. “I just think that we have outgrown the system and are in need of help in order to maintain what we have.”

As a follow-up to the letter in October, Byrd set out to hold a meeting of the membership to discuss NBU’s proposal.

According to Article VII, Section 1 of the Water System by-laws, a meeting “must be called whenever a petition requesting such meeting is signed by at least 10 percent of the members.”

“In order to have a petition signed by 10 percent of the membership, I need to know who all the members are so I can contact them,” Byrd said.

The petition states:

“We the undersigned members of the Whitehouse Water System request the Board of Directors of WHWS to notify all members in writing announcing a public meeting between WHWS and NBU to allow both sides the opportunity to discuss the merger proposal sent to the WHWS Board of Directors on Oct. 23, 2018. The public meeting will allow the members of the WHWS to better understand the proposal and ask questions from representatives of both systems. After a scheduled meeting occurs a vote will be taken within 14 days of the public meeting, allowing the members to vote if they wish to merge WHWS with NBU. Such vote will be handled by a third party to ensure privacy and transparency for the vote.”

According to Article V, Section 1 of the by-laws, “A single membership may be issued to all persons owning or having a substantial possessory interest in the property. Only one membership may be held with respect to property at one time.”

“I can go door-to-door, but unless I know who holds a certificate of membership, I have no way of knowing if the person signing the petition is a member,” Byrd said.

So, he requested a list of the membership, which the Board refused, saying that it was a violation of its members’ privacy.

Byrd then retained Bay Minette attorney Harry Still III seeking a court order to get the list of the members. In November, Still sent a letter to the Water System seeking to obtain the list.

In June, a judge ordered the Water System to hand over the list of members to Byrd. At the same time a letter was sent out to the membership from the Board informing them of the petition, but also encouraging members to stay with the White House Water System.

“If you are approached by anyone representing this movement promising lower rates, please remember that handing over your system to them removes any negotiating power or control Whitehouse/Crossroads/Bromley members have over their water system. We encourage to let representatives from this movement know that White House Water System will remain property of the Whitehouse/Crossroads/Bromley community.”

In contacting the media, Still said he wanted people to get straight answers of what the petition was about.

“We feel like this letter is misleading at best,” Still said, “and just want people to make an informed decision before anything is done.”

Larry Patton, who serves as the current Board president for the White House Water System, has a different view of the petition and the NBU proposal.

“This is not a merger, it is an outright takeover attempt by NBU,” Patton said.

Patton estimates the Water System’s members at between 2,500 and 3,000 and at the annual meeting in April, only about 100 members showed up.

“Of that only about 10 or 12 had complaints about their Water System is being handled,” he said, “and most of those are North Baldwin Utilities employees.”

Patton called the issues with the water lines minor and said they are currently working to get a federal grant to help expand and fix some of the line breaks.

“Our system is in good financial shape,” he said. “We have a good working relationship with North Baldwin Utilities. They are helping us extend some of our lines and have always been there for us over the years when we needed them.

“We are a small system and we are working on solutions, but it’s just going to take time and we’re asking the members to be patient with us while we are going through this process.”

Padgett said he welcomed the opportunity to meet with the White House Water System Board and members, adding that similar proposals had been accepted by several other smaller utilities companies in the area.

“I want to bring some of them in to talk about there experience,” he said. “We are not trying to take over the White House Water System. We are their neighbors and want to do everything we can to help out.”

Byrd said the bottom line in all this is that he just wants answers, answers he said he is not getting from the White House Water System Board.

“I just don’t think they’re being honest with us,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it this way. All I wanted to was to sit down and have a conversation and that just didn’t happen.”

Patton said he is serving his second stint as president of the Board and has nothing but the best interest of the customer/members at heart.

If Byrd gets the required amount of signatures, he said, they would have no choice but to have a meeting and discuss NBU’s proposal, but he said, according to the system’s by-laws and the Water System attorney, the decision to accept the proposal would ultimately be up to the Board.

“I have never lied to anybody about anything,” he said. “I have served this Board for a long time and all I want is to do what is best for our customers.”