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Albany's interim utilities manager questions leaders' push against plans

Tom Berry contemplates his exit strategy as Albany leaders fight 'opportunities'

Tom Berry, center, has been lauded for the work he’s done as interim general manager of Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission since taking the job in September of last year. (Staff Photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Tom Berry, center, has been lauded for the work he’s done as interim general manager of Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission since taking the job in September of last year. (Staff Photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Tom Berry, who’s made it clear since he came to Albany as interim Water, Gas & Light Commission general manager in September of 2013 that there’s little room for personal attachments in his business, offers a sheepish grin when he’s asked the question.

“You’re right, I’ve ended up liking it here way more than I thought I would,” Berry said during a recent conversation. “Water, Gas & Light has some issues, but it also has the potential — with proper leadership — to become an efficient revenue-producer for the city. And that’s what it should be.

“But when you talk about the good things in this community, it starts with the people.”

Berry said in an earlier interview with The Albany Herald that serving as an interim consultant was, essentially, a matter of getting in, assessing needs, addressing problems and getting out. “You don’t want to stay long enough to develop relationships,” Berry said at the time.

City officials have enthusiastically endorsed the work Berry has done at WG&L, and several — generally at the urging of WG&L staff and members of the public — have broached the topic of Berry extending his stay. The long-time management consultant, who once served double duty as head of the city of Thomasville’s utility department and its city government, has insisted he has no intention of doing so, but he has agreed to stay longer than originally anticipated. Most of that has to do with the close working relationship he’s developed with Albany City Manager James Taylor.

It’s that relationship, however, that has Berry talking about an exit strategy.

“There are things I agreed to do with James, things that we both believe are vital to the future of this city,” Berry said. “One of those things is making sure a (WG&L) budget is in place. But, frankly, I’m pretty close to deciding to leave once we finish the budget process.”

Berry offers an explanation.

“If James Taylor were supported in doing what he can for this organization, I’d be more inclined to stay,” the utility GM said. “But he’s being challenged (by some city leaders) for reasons I don’t understand. I don’t plan to waste my time in a situation like that. I have more important things to do.

“There are a lot of things — a lot of big things — on the drawing board for this organization (WG&L) that could be done to generate opportunities and revenue. James gets that. But there are some in the city who are fighting him, I guess, for personal reasons. They’re not thinking about what’s best for the people of Albany.”

Berry said other city leaders have joined him in looking for ways to improve the utility. He cited Ward III City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who proposed at Tuesday evening’s commission meeting creating “some kind of task force” to look for ways to make utility payments easier for struggling WG&L ratepayers.

“Our job is to take as much of the burden as we can from our taxpayers,” Fletcher said. “We need to do everything we can (at WG&L) to work with customers. I’m not talking about the ones who are always trying to beat the system, but the ones who have issues like bills coming due before the date that they receive checks. We need to do what we can to make the utility payment more convenient for them, without charging them late fees.

“And we have to do something to make landlords bring their rental units up to code. It’s ridiculous that some of these renters living in small units are paying $600 and $700 utility bills every month.”

Berry said code enforcers’ hands are tied when it comes to improperly maintained rental units.

“What people don’t understand is that, while Code Enforcement can cite landlords for improperly maintaining a property, they’re not allowed to investigate unless they receive a complaint,” Berry said. “What the city could do, though, is create an energy code and rather than punish owners whose properties are not up to that code, offer them incentives to improve the property.

“We could operate a program like that by better managing our delinquencies. As most people know, our delinquencies cost not WG&L but our ratepayers well over $3 million a year. We should work from a zero-sum game: Find incentives that would lower costs to homeowners and hopefully lower delinquencies. If we spend a half-million dollars on a program that lowers delinquencies by $2 million, that’s a $1 1/2 million gain for our ratepayers.”

Fletcher, a restaurateur, likens Berry’s idea to running a business.

“So many businesses make their money off volume,” she said. “That’s a concept we should consider. How can you keep utility costs down? You increase revenue by providing efficient services to as many customers as you can.”