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By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writers
The Rockford Utilities Board had much business to conduct and discuss during its March meeting, including the sewer plant, business license, commercial water, a building update, the purchase of Parker Creek Water, and more.
With all board members present, Utilities Superintendent Wade Brown explained that the USDA grant for the sewer plant is a partial grant and partial loan, with $350,000 of it being a grant and $370,000 of it being a loan.
However, he said the American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 funds, which he said will start releasing in June, would not be a loan or require matching funds. He added that the ARPA funds could be used to cover the sewer plant completely, with the Utilities Board not having to pay anything out of pocket for it.
After some discussion, the board unanimously approved tabling the matter until its next meeting.
Regarding the commercial water issue that was brought up at its February meeting, Utilities Clerk Deanna Lesley asked for clarification on whether churches should be classified as residential or business customers.
The board said to categorize churches as residential. However, other commercial businesses that were found to be charged residential water rates will be changed to the commercial water rate category, as per discussion at both February and March meetings.
Lesley later explained that the commercial water change will be effective immediately. She said the coming up bill will reflect the commercial water rate on some businesses that were not charged the commercial water rate from the beginning.
“For example, there were businesses that were charged residential water rate at $30 plus tax, and then they were charged commercial sewer rate at $35,” she said. “Most businesses were charged residential rate and commercial sewer rate. There may be some businesses that were charged residential rate for both water and sewer. There are some businesses that will not be affected because they were already being charged correctly.”
Currently the commercial water rate is $45 plus tax, and commercial sewer rate is $35 with no tax. The residential water rate is $30 plus tax, and residential sewer rate is $15 with no tax.
Both residential and commercial gas rates are $16 plus tax.
Lesley further explained that the churches were labeled in the system as commercial, which after the most recent meeting has now been changed to residential.
“Some of the churches were charged residential water rate and commercial sewer rate,” she added. “Those have been corrected to charge the churches as residential water and residential sewer if they have sewer.”
In other business, the board and its attorney, Nancy Kirby, discussed the Utilities Board business license.
Kirby explained that she sent letters to town attorney Derrick Blythe on February 18 and again on March 2, but that she had not received a response as of the board’s March 15 meeting. However, she said she spoke with Blythe after the council meeting that same evening and that he said he was working on a response.
She said they researched the matter at length last year regarding the business license and whether the board was liable to purchase a business license. To that end, she said they reviewed the town ordinances for the exact wording used.
In her February letter to Blythe, Kirby stated that “it is the intention of the Utilities Board to comply with all applicable town ordinances.”
To that end, she said in her letter that she requested a copy of the ordinance currently in place “which imposes the business license requirement and its calculation.”
In the letter she further explained that she received via email a copy of Ordinance 579, “consisting of more than 20 pages and appearing to be out of order at best, or a grouping of various documents.”
The letter stated that over the course of their research last year Ordinance 579 was never provided to them. Instead, she stated that the most recent ordinance they had on the business license issue was Ordinance 303 from 1979.
She went on to request that the town “please make available a full and complete copy of whatever is the most recent ordinance that imposes a business license requirement on the Utilities Board and that directs how it is to be calculated, if applicable,” as well as “the Town Council minutes where this ordinance was adopted.”
In her March 2 letter, Kirby followed up with Blythe explaining that she had not yet received a response to her February 18 letter. She went on to go over her review of Ordinance 579, “which is purported to be the most recent town ordinance addressing business licensing requirements.”
In her letter she stated that it appears as though the Utilities Board does not owe any business license fee.
In part, the letter reads, “The town ordinance plainly states that, in the first place, the cost of a business license is based on gross receipts, and then Section 2, paragraph 6(c) of the town ordinance lays out specific limitations for what is considered ‘gross receipts’ of a utility, specifically limiting gross receipts to those obtained from the furnishing of services which are taxed under Section 40-21-3, Alabama Code.”
However, she explained in the letter that none of the Utilities Board’s gross receipts come from the furnishing of services which are taxed under that section of the Code of Alabama.
“The plain conclusion, then, is that Rockford Utilities Board Inc.’s gross receipts which are subject to the business license fee are zero,” the letter reads.
Kirby further stated in the letter, “In conclusion, not only does Rockford Utilities Board Inc. not owe a license fee, since the gross receipts subject to the fee calculation are zero, the Utilities Board is entitled to a refund of the business license fee it paid in 2021. Rockford Utilities Board Inc. hereby requests such reimbursement.”
After discussion, the board unanimously approved tabling the matter until its next meeting to await a response from Blythe.
In other business, during the meeting Superintendent Brown also reviewed prices based on four estimates received relating to the board’s building to be built near Dollar General along U.S. Highway 231.
Those estimates were provided from Bessemer Steel, Gamel Construction in Sylacauga, Webb Builders of Prattville, and Alabama Steel of Montgomery.
Brown explained that he got the quotes just to get an idea of pricing. However, he said if the board proceeds then it would have to be advertised for bids and do a sealed bid process.
After brief discussion, the board unanimously approved advertising for bids for two weeks and having those turned in the week prior to its next meeting.
In other business, the board unanimously approved hiring Chris Crumbley as a fulltime employee at a starting pay of $13 per hour and unanimously approved paying assistant Utilities Clerk Jennifer Ayers for helping Clerk Lesley with taking notes and minutes for the meetings.
The board also received and reviewed a letter from Wallace Jones, director of Gas Pipeline Safety with the Alabama Public Service Commission.
In the letter Jones explained that February 7-8, Randy Hammond with his office conducted a comprehensive inspection of their facilities. He further stated that the evaluation consisted of review and verification of related documents, field tests and interviews with employees.
“The system was found in satisfactory compliance with state and federal natural gas distribution safety rules in the areas evaluated,” the letter read.
During its March meeting, the board’s purchase of Parker Creek Water Company was mentioned. That was described as a “profitable purchase” during brief discussion.
At the board’s February meeting, Mayor Scott White had inquired as to the purchase price of Parker Creek. At that time Brown stated that the board could not say how much it paid for it because it had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
Brown went on to say that while the board members could not state what the purchase price was, that it was a matter of public record and that anyone could go to the courthouse and look it up. He further stated that he thinks the purchase is worth it in the long run.
However, available court documents did not seem to reflect a total purchase price. Initially, anonymous sources reported that the purchase was approximately $3.5 million.
The warranty deed filed with the probate court, however, only reflects a price of $100 and “other valuable considerations.”
The warranty deed specifically reads, “…in consideration of $100 and other valuable considerations to the undersigned grantor in hand paid by the grantee herein, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, Parker Creek Water Company, LLC., (herein referred to as grantor) by and through its sole member and authorized agent, Terry Henley, do grant, bargain, sell, and convey unto Rockford Utilities Board Inc. (herein referred to as grantee), the following described real estate situated in Coosa County…”
The deed went on to describe the Parker Creek Water Company property located along County Road 20. The same property was sold to Terry Henley and Parker Creek by Alabama Power in 2012 for $6,375, according to a statutory warranty deed.
In further attempting to gather information relating to Rockford Utilities Board’s purchase of Parker Creek, Revenue Commissioner Debra Lamberth said that the deeds of record were not recorded based on the value of the property.
“Parker Creek Water Authority is a public utility and files their annual assessments with the state who then sends me the assessed value to be used in determining taxes due,” Lamberth said.
She said that for 2022 the assessed value was $50,220, and at a 30% assessment rate, the value Parker Creek Water filed was $167,400.
Lamberth added that no more property taxes will be collected for the utility since it now belongs to Rockford.
The next regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Rockford Utilities Board will be held at 7 p.m. April 19.