ALBANY — Tom Berry told the crowd of some 50 East Albany residents that he would talk about general services provided by Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission, not about specific concerns.
The crowd, all eager to speak with the WG&L interim general manager, many angry even, would have none of it.
“I’d like to know why I’m getting light bills around $500 and $600 a month, and there are people over on the west side of town whose houses are much bigger than mine but their light bill is $150 to $200 less,” one attendee of Ward I Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard’s Saturday-morning town hall meeting asked.
Howard had assured the crowd that Berry was on hand to “dispel the myth” of higher utilities charges for citizens living on the east side of town, but the Water, Gas & Light general manager’s mini lecture on weather-proofing homes had little impact.
“I weather-proofed my home and was told (by a WG&L employee) that I would have no more high bills, and the next month my bill went from more than $400 to more than $600,” one said. “The next month it dropped, but it was still more than $500.”
Berry calmly answered all questions, even as the crowd’s frustration grew.
“Trust me, I’ve heard it all before,” Berry said over lunch Monday afternoon, two days removed from the meeting that he called “very productive.” “We had similar complaints down in Thomasville (where Berry served as utilities director/city manager), but they were a little more direct there. They flatly said we used ‘white meters and black meters.’
“Now, though, they don’t hear those kinds of complaints. We put programs in place there that had a positive impact on all of our customers, and we really built up the customer service side of the utility.”
Berry came to Albany as interim GM five months ago with a reputation as a straight shooter. He’s done nothing to lessen that characterization. In fact, he pulled no punches with the crowd Saturday, telling them, “One of the first things I found when I got here was that there’s so much fat on the city side and on the WG&L side that it’s pathetic.”
Berry also told the crowd: “WG&L is not in danger of going broke, but it is not financially sound.” … “A ‘fat’ WG&L and a ‘fat’ city of Albany is not the way to promote efficiency.” … “It’s stupid to spend money on one side and money on the other side when it could have been paid once.”
The WG&L GM said Monday his comments Saturday were not made to provoke the crowd.
“I’ve always believed in complete transparency,” he said. “People who’ve been around me know that’s the way I operate. I also know a company’s employees who are comfortable have an aversion to change. I’m well aware that there are those at WG&L who have said ‘we’ll go along while he’s here, then when he leaves we’ll go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them.’ I can only hope that the ‘real stars’ who have risen since I’ve been here won’t let that happen.
“Look, I know you don’t change the culture at a place that’s been in existence for more than 100 years in five months. But the bulk of the operation here — I’d say 90 percent or more — has really bought into the things we’re trying to do. Where they go from here will depend on the employees, the WG&L board and the City Commission. It won’t do a whole lot of good to change the culture at WG&L if we don’t change the culture of the city as well.”
Berry, who agreed to stay until “around March” when he first came to Albany, said there are things that he wants to accomplish before he leaves the utility in the hands of a permanent GM. He also says he’s developed a nice rapport with City Manager James Taylor and there are issues the two want to tackle together.
“Naming Jo Brophy CFO is a big first step,” Berry said. “WG&L’s finances, frankly, were a mess. I’m on board with having a CFO to oversee all the finances in the city, I think it’s a smart move. That should create some consistency that is needed.
“See, there is a government element to WG&L, and there are regulatory elements as well. But the utility has to function as a business and must find ways to generate more revenue. If the people in charge — whether it’s the WG&L board or even the City Commission — understand that and there is an open line of communication, we can do the things that were done in Thomasville.”
The much smaller Rose City is being held up as an example for Albany’s utility, first because Berry was the architect of turning Thomasville’s utility around, and second, because the city’s utility has generated enough funding to eliminate city taxes there. Berry said WG&L could do the same.
“They’ve got a $20 million fund balance,” he said. “They’re about one-third the size of Albany, but they generate more than half the revenue. I’ll take size of dollars over size of population or any other factor. We need to look at their business model and take advantage of revenue-producing opportunities like they have.”
As Berry has slowly implemented changes at WG&L, changes that have so far been pretty much universally lauded, a growing number of local citizens has started talking about keeping him around for the long haul. That, he says, is not going to happen.
“I’m really surprised at how much I’ve liked being here,” he said. “But there are no circumstances — even if they moved my pay up to a half-million dollars a year — that would make me take any job permanently. I am willing to stay here a little longer than planned, though, because I’m really impressed with the good folks at Water, Gas & Light and in the community.
“I’ve put a lot of energy into this position, and I’d really like to see this city and its utility thrive. What happens after I leave, though, is beyond my control. I’ll just work as hard as I can while I’m here to make sure the people are in place who won’t let things go back to the way they were.”