ALBANY — Tom Berry’s not one of those guys who pulls his punches. In his current position as interim general manager of Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission — a position he has no interest in holding on a permanent basis — he doesn’t have to.
Berry’s here to do a job, not win a popularity contest.
So when the well-respected utility/administrative manager offers his assessment of the city-owned utility he’s managed for the past two-plus months, city leaders know he’s not going to just tell them what they want to hear. Case in point: Berry’s comments Thursday during an impromptu state-of-the-utility conversation with The Albany Herald.
“I’ve said it before, and I still believe that a utility should not ask for a rate increase until it gets its house in order,” Berry said. “That’s where WG&L is right now. The rates here are lower than most comparable cities in the state, but we still have some issues to address.”
The interim GM’s contract is open-ended, but he’s made it clear that as long as he’s in Albany, he’ll be working to eradicate — or at least improve on — inefficiencies that plague the utility. He’s taken steps in that direction already, having:
— Begun the process of reducing WG&L’s “layers of supervision;”
— Combined the utility’s water treatment plant and energy control center;
— Begun development of an in-house voluntary leadership training program that will provide a core group of employees specific skills that will allow them to fill slots within the utility outside their current areas of expertise;
— Worked with City Manager James Taylor to bring such areas as finances more in line with city procedures;
— Started an ongoing reorganization of the utility that will impact many of WG&L’s 267 employees. That process led to the loss of eight jobs in the utility’s fiber optics division. And Berry warns that there may be other cuts.
“What I’ve found since I’ve been here is that there are some really good folks at the Water, Gas & Light Commission,” Berry said. “Frankly, a lot of the things they’re doing are being done the wrong way because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ The biggest change I’ve brought to the table is communications.
“I know the primary function of the utility is to keep the lights on, the gas flowing and the water flowing — and, now, keep telecommunications functioning — but there’s just never been any global direction. We’ve established that any time there is a cross-functional project to be done, all the players involved will be at the table so that they don’t go into it in the dark.”
Berry is quick to note that the lack of communications that existed when he took on the job is the primary factor in the inefficiencies he’s working to correct.
“We’ve started the restructuring that’s needed, and I’ve been pleased that it’s taken on a life of its own,” he said. “Pretty much everyone has gotten behind what we’re doing. There are some who haven’t, but that’s to be expected. It takes a little while for dramatic change to make its way all the way down an organization.”
Berry said he’s developed a pretty good idea of what has made change at WG&L necessary.
“Let’s be honest: They’d gotten fat,” he said. “And because they were fat, they were unable to react quickly to opportunities that presented themselves. And sometimes when you don’t react quickly enough, the opportunity goes away. The utility has not used technology to its greatest benefit, and therefore it is not structured to provide the most benefit to the city.
“Going forward, though, a lot of the responsibility for the utility’s future is going to rest with the Albany City Commission.”
The interim GM said the city probably needed to take greater control of the authority (by changing the city charter to clearly define WG&L as a city department), but he said micromanagement by the commission would be a mistake.
“The city did what they felt like they needed to do: They hit (WG&L) upside the head with a 2-by-4 to get their attention,” he said. “And they got it. Now the city needs to step back and re-evaluate where we are. I know they want and expect the best from that organization.
“The bottom line is, there is only one elected body in this city, and so the future success of WG&L is going to depend on that leadership. But I’ve talked with those folks, and I believe there is good leadership here, both existing and new. It’s going to take that commission, the WG&L board, the city manager and the entire WG&L organization working together to make it what it could be. And, trust me, this utility could be one of the premiere utilities not just in Georgia, but in the entire nation.”
Berry said the players involved in WG&L’s future have to take a more far-reaching approach to the utility’s management, much farther out than his tenure here.
“I can make changes while I’m here — I have already,” he said. “But my focus is five years down the road. Is the structure in place to provide the most benefit to the city of Albany five years in the future? Right now, I think it’s not.
“But the utility has a big thing in its favor: There are some really good folks working here. When I go into places and evaluate personnel, I look at it as if it were my own private business. I ask myself, ‘Would I hire this person to work for my private company?’ For the most part here, I would. So before the city hires a full-time general manager, I want to put the structure in place that will allow these people to meet the objectives that will make this a more efficient organization.”