The Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission was founded 100 years ago to serve as Albany’s municipal utility.
ALBANY — For more than 100 years, Albany’s municipal utility — the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission — has brought modern-day mainstays like electricity and water into the homes of its ratepayers.
And yet now, perhaps more than ever, WG&L finds itself the target of scrutiny as those at the highest levels of city government whisper of reshaping or even stripping the utility of its board; fundamentally changing the way the organization is run.
WG&L is the state’s largest municipally-owned utility with more than 40,000 customers, General Manager Lemuel Edwards said.
969 total votes.
A member of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, WG&L buys its electricity from MEAG and then passes it on to its ratepayers in Albany. Additionally, WG&L provides natural gas service and bills consumers for water usage provided by Public Works.
Recently, the utility also began offering telecommunications services via fiber-optic cable that reaches beyond the geopolitical boundaries of Albany and Dougherty County.
And while the utility is subordinate to the Albany City Commission, it is technically more than a city department but less than an autonomous unit like an authority.
It’s board members are appointed to staggered terms by the Albany City Commission — a process that happens annually and will take place again Monday for two board positions — and led by the mayor of the city of Albany, who serves as chair.
It’s that board that functions on behalf of the Albany City Commission as the overseer of the utility’s operations, its general manager and its $100 million-plus annual budget.
With rates set to rise again this year — largely because of millions in fee increases imposed by MEAG — some on the City Commission have privately expressed concern that the situation may be one that is growing faster than the current board can contain.
Edwards said that the board is vital to ensuring politics stays out of the discussions of how best to run the utility — a distraction he believes would cause the board to become dysfunctional if allowed to creep in.
“You have to keep the politics out of the utility. That’s the main reason the commission appoints the board,” Edwards said. “If not, you get politics into the rate-making process. … If they’re elected members, you get people running or campaigning saying they could lower rates and things like that.”
And yet politics often does enter into board appointments.
Board member and state Rep. Carol Fullerton, who is up for reconsideration for appointment Monday, found herself involved in a particularly bitter fight with outgoing mayor Willie Adams in 2009, when Fullerton was removed from the board after missing three consecutive meetings while attending the General Assembly in Atlanta.
Fullerton, who said at the time she believed her removal was due to her position on calling for a vote for consolidation of the city and county governments, would eventually find herself back on the board and those who spoke publicly of the incident at the time denied the move had any underlying political motives.
At his last official work session as mayor, Adams cautioned his fellow commissioners to chose appointees carefully, especially when it comes to WG&L, because of the sheer size of the budget and the expertise needed to operate a utility.
And while Edwards said that keeping politics out of the operation of the utility is vital, a landmark 1935 Georgia Supreme Court decision involving WG&L seems to imply that is just how the justices believe taxpayers exert their control over the utility.
“Citizens of the municipality ... own the plant which supplies the electricity and water(,) (t)he remedy of any ill that can be anticipated rests with the owners of the plant, the qualified voters of the municipality, at the ballot box,” the justices wrote in their opinion, which ultimately helped separate municipal utilities from regulatory oversight of the state Public Service Commission.
Essentially, the statement argues that since the utility is ultimately owned by the taxpayers and that the City Commission is merely tasked with running the utility on behalf of the taxpayer, the taxpayers should ultimately have the right to vote out those they feel are mismanaging the utility — something they can do only indirectly with a WG&L board in place.
There is a legal debate among those in power over whether the City Commission could, under the doctrine of Home Rule, vote to dissolve the board and make the general manager an appointee of the commission or a department head under the supervision of the city manager.
And, if 2012 is ultimately the year of smaller government as some have predicted, WG&L may end up being the target of even broader changes.
Currently the utility has its own Finance department, its own Human Resources department and its own Information Technology department, all of whose staff are employees who receive salaries and benefits.
While no one on the fifth floor of the Government Center would go on the record with a firm position on the matter, consolidating the city’s Finance, Human Resources and IT departments with WG&L’s would — at least partially — reduce any duplication in services that have to be paid by both the taxpayers and the ratepayers.
Edwards said candidly there’s a reason WG&L has its own departments and that merging them with the city wouldn’t be a good idea.
“We are a multifaceted utility, we aren’t like a Georgia Power or Mitchell EMC; we have to meet state and federal mandates for water and natural gas. In the electrical department, we have our own lineman who have to be trained and certified,” the WG&L GM said. “The city staff doesn’t have the technical training background to do the types of services we do. The two entities are just so different.”