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Guarded Optimism

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July 15, 2011 by wcobserver

The West Fork Water Department’s woes won’t end with a hike in water rates. The depth and breadth of the problems in that department will require many months, perhaps years, to sort out and return the city utility to solvency and accountability.

The people who attended the June 14 public hearing regarding the rate increase didn’t get much in the way of a plan to rectify the department’s problems, which aren’t limited to financial insolvency. The financial problems are coupled with insufficient accountability and lack of transparency in the Water Department. Add to that questions concerning the legality of transferred funds by City Treasurer/Water Department Secretary Kristie Drymon, wife of Councilmember Rodney Drymon.

The “go forward plan” presented by the Water Department was mostly a list of actions that have been and/or should have been in practice all along. New on the list, however, was an agreement to increase the number of Commission members from three to five. Good idea. It probably wouldn’t hurt to reduce the length of terms for commission members from eight years, but that wasn’t mentioned.

As word circulated in the community that there were openings on the Water Commission nine citizens came forward and offered their time and energy to the city. Those putting their name in the hat are surely aware of the current disarray in the department but, nonetheless, believed in some way that they had something constructive to offer. No government in a democracy can function without the participation of its citizens in every facet of its operation.

Every person who stepped up to the challenge is to be commended.

Our optimism however is guarded. In order to make real and substantive change in the Water Department the commission will need three votes. Hopefully, the process for selecting new commissioners will result in the creation of an independent body capable of making some very hard decisions regarding the current Utilities Superintendent Michael “Butch” Bartholomew.

Under his supervision the department over the last several years has continued to deteriorate. The bond reserve fund has been siphoned off to cover operating costs. No budget for 2011 for the Water and Wastewater Utility was presented for approval to the City Council. There have been exorbitant amounts of unaccounted water loss for several years. Then there is the salary. Many taxpayers think the nearly $90,000 in salary and benefits being paid to Bartholomew is excessive.

Having a five member commission is an excellent idea. But, will there be three citizens on that commission who will know what managerial negligence looks like and are willing to confront it. Will there be three votes to write and ENFORCE policy and procedures that guarantee the Water Department obeys the law, operates in the open, and hold those responsible for illegal and/or hidden actions accountable?
Will the new five member commission include three members who are receptive to the prospect of offering Mr. Bartholomew a retirement package?

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