Commission to receive WG&L revenues under merger bill

ATLANTA -- It's been called the city's cash cow or the goose that laid the golden egg, but the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission would be mandated by the consolidation charter to turn over at least 7.5 percent of its annual revenues to the new government each year, documents show.

Additionally, any revenues that exceed any liabilities, maintenance and operations cost and debt, would go to the Albany-Dougherty County Commission, according to Senate Bill 538, but only for the use and benefit of city residents.

Currently, WG&L relinquishes roughly $7 million each year to the city of Albany -- which includes a 7.5 percent chunk of revenues -- but the agreements that bind WG&L to those payments exist only in mutual ordinances and agreements between the city commission and the WG&L board.

The city's current charter, which was recently updated, has no reference as to how much WG&L must pay the commission of its revenues and only references how funds or credits obtained through the Municipal Association of Georgia's Competitive Trust or MEAG fund, are dispersed.

Finance Director John Vansant says that a joint ordinance adopted in the early 1990's between the city and the WG&L board allowed for 7.5 percent on all metered revenues up to $80 million be turned over to the city annually. If revenues exceed $80 million, the ordinance drops the percentage WG&L has to turn over to 6.5 percent.

Additionally, an agreement was reached prior to that ordinance that requires WG&L to pay an additional $750,000 flat fee to the city each year. S.B. 538 doesn't mention this fee, however, the language in the bill would force WG&L to pay 7.5 percent of metered and unmetered revenues -- funds that Vansant said would likely equal the fee amount.

The difference between current practice and what would happen should consolidation go through, is that WG&L would then be mandated, not by ordinance to pay, -- which is easier to amend or change altogether -- but by the government's new charter.

In contrast, H.B. 800, the consolidation bill authored by Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, and Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, leaves the transfer of money between WG&L and the new consolidated government more open-ended saying only that annual agreements be set between the two bodies for dispersal of excess revenues. H.B. 800 passed the House last Spring but was cast aside in the Senate in favor of S.B. 538.

H.B. 800 doesn't mention the MEAG credits, but that is likely because the bill is almost verbatim the charter proposed by the Albany-Dougherty County Charter Planning Commission in 2005. The MEAG credits didn't begin flowing into WG&L until January 2009.

Interestingly, S.B. 538 omits any mention of a Longterm Financial Planning Committee, which was created by act of the city commission last year to manage one-half of the MEAG credits being received by the city.

According to the city charter and S.B. 538, all funds received by WG&L from the MEAG trust were to be kept in a separate account, with WG&L maintaining command and control of one-third of the total pot and two-thirds of the pot going to the city of Albany.

The city charter then states that the city would divide their share of the funds in half between their general fund and the longterm financial planning committee.

Since the city's charter would be dissolved if consolidation were to pass, it's unclear whether the omission of the LTFPC would allow two-thirds of the annual MEAG allocation -- roughly $6 million -- to go directly into the city's general fund.

Finally, in a direct response to the will of the city commission, S.B. 538 does contain language that ensures that all of the money that is paid out annually to the new government is set aside in a separate account to benefit only the residents of what would be the Urban District, which is essentially everyone who lives within the corporate city limits now.

That stipulation was one debated both the city commission and the county commission during deliberations on possible changes to H.B. 800 over the Summer.

Mayor Willie Adams first broached the subject of "protecting" the revenues generated by WG&L from being distributed throughout the entire consolidated county when the majority of the rate payers live within the urban district.

Commissioners discussed an option presented by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia that would transform WG&L from a board into a true constitutional authority. That would completely protect the revenues generated by their rate payers from the Albany-Dougherty Commission, but it would also cut off a spigot flowing $7 million annually into the Urban District, unless the authority agreed to give the government the money -- a move that some on the commission believe would be unlikely.

Commissioner Roger Marietta was the first to speak specifically of confining WG&L revenues and assets for use in the Urban district. A vote for consensus was called and all commissioners, minus Ward 5 Commissioner Bob Langstaff, supported the measure.

One issue that was discussed by the county commission regarding WG&L was the fact that WG&L provides water service outside of the corporate city limits all the way to Putney. The idea is that if services are provided outside of the Urban District, then the resources and revenues shouldn't be strictly limited to that one particular area.

In that same vein, there are some who live within the city of Albany who may have WG&L water service, but buy electricity from Georgia Power.

After debate, the county commissioners capitulated to the will of the city commission and agreed to allow WG&L revenues to be used solely in the Urban District.

That notion conflicts with both H.B. 800 and the proposed charter that was compiled by the Albany-Dougherty Charter Planning Commission in 2005 which both state that the new government receive "revenues in excess of the operating costs of the water, gas and light board to the commission of Albany-Dougherty County, Georgia," without stipulation.