Interim Albany Parks and Recreation Director Darrel Smith discusses his department's budget during Tuesday's Albany City Commission meeting as Mayor Dorothy Hubbard looks on. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — After what could generously be called “spirited debate,” the Albany City Commission voted 5-2 at its work session Tuesday morning to tentatively approve an amendment to the City Charter that would make the city manager also the general manager of the city’s Water, Gas & Light Commission.
The charter change would not become official until it was approved at consecutive business meetings.
City Manager James Taylor said he and interim WG&L GM Tom Berry had devised the proposed charter amendment as a way to “improve the operating efficiency of the utility.” The commission voted on April 23 to formally make WG&L a department of the city under the direct supervision of the city manager.
Taylor also suggested that the WG&L board, whose members have publicly lamented their declining role in operation of the utility, be granted the authority to approve land acquisitions up to the amount of $250,000.
That’s when the spirited discussion started.
Ward II Commissioner Bobby Coleman got the ball rolling when he objected to the figure.
“They should be reporting to us way before that,” Coleman said, demanding a reason for giving the utility board such authority.
“In land acquisition, the minute you put it on the table, the price of the land automatically goes up,” Taylor said. The city manager then pointed out that the City Commission has ultimate control of the board. “You select the people who serve on this board,” he said. “Either you trust them or you don’t.”
Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff pointed out that the $250,000 restriction would actually give the City Commission a higher level of control over WG&L spending.
“Understand, as it is now, there is no limit,” Langstaff said. “In theory, this will make that board more nimble, but it will also keep them from buying another SunTrust building.”
Langstaff’s reference is to a plan approved by the WG&L board two years ago to purchase the SunTrust Bank building on West Broad Avenue without first clearing the purchase with the City Commission. That plan was eventually nixed.
Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell asked for assurances that the new authority would not renew what he said was the utility’s “assumption that they ruled over us, not the other way around.” When Postell made reference to “lies” that he said utility officials told the city in the past, Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta took exception.
“I don’t feel anyone at WG&L intentionally lied to us, and since that statement was made in a public meeting, I am compelled to challenge that,” Marietta said. “That’s one person’s opinion.”
Marietta’s remarks drew Coleman’s ire.
“It’s my understanding that members of this board are allowed to express their opinions,” he said. “Criticizing one another openly does not move the city forward.”
Mayor Dorothy Hubbard — who’d earlier responded to Coleman’s assertation that he “asked questions to learn but would not make a vote on an issue he did not understand” by saying, “That’s what we expect of you, but we also expect everyone to do their due diligence so that they better understand these issues” — also challenged Postell’s comments.
“When anyone makes a statement in public, I expect them to bring data to back those statements up,” she said. “I also feel that if we keep looking backward, we’re going to stumble because we don’t see where we’re going.
“Your Water, Gas & Light board is looking to the future, trying to move this city forward. I ask that you allow us to work with Mr. Taylor and Mr. Berry to move our utility forward.”
Taylor said after the vote that making the city manager the acting GM of the utility authority would not make the position any harder to fill.
“The plan is to have an assistant city manager with knowledge of utility management,” he said. “I don’t think it will make the city manager’s position that much more difficult.”
Also at the meeting, the commission voted to approve a plan by the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, a 49-city collective of which Albany’s WG&L is a member, to refinance a sales contract for the additional nuclear energy units under construction at Plant Vogtle. MEAG owns 22 percent of the projected $12 billion to $14 billion project.
Scott Jones with MEAG told commissioners the local utility had sold its 25-megawatt share of power from the plant and that for the first 20 years of a 40-year bond issuance, Albany’s share of the cost would be paid by a pair of energy suppliers — one in Mobile, Ala., and another in Jacksonville, Fla.
“You don’t need that electricity now, so this was a very smart strategic move by the city,” Jones said. “If, after the first 20 years of the contract, you decide you don’t need the additional electricity, MEAG will help you sell it again. This refinancing will save MEAG — and its members — hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the bond, but having it puts Albany in a strong bargaining position in the future.”
The commission also tentatively agreed to new fire and recreation service delivery agreements with Dougherty County under which the county will pay $3,862,500 a year over the next five years for fire service and $180,700 for recreation.
“These agreements have been carefully developed and, we feel, are equitable,” Assistant City Manager Wes Smith told the board.
The board also voted to go against staff recommendation and accept a bid from TransWaste to provide solid waste collection service in West Albany. Postell said before making a motion to accept TransWaste’s bid, “I feel they can deal with our situation better.”