Future unclear after dissolution of commission
Questions and concerns abound in the wake of a decision by the El Dorado City Council to dissolve the commission that oversaw operations of the El Dorado Water Utilities and the subsequent resignation of the utilities’ general manager.
Aldermen voted 7-1 in a special meeting July 17 to abolish the El Dorado Water and Sewer Commission, which had directed operations for the utilities for decades, and to move the water utilities under the supervision of the Department of Public Works.
The council cited ongoing issues and complaints, including those from citizens, charging poor customer service, inefficiency while making repairs and seemingly an unwillingness by the utilities to address complaints.
At the time Robert Edmonds, director of public works, said he had developed a detailed plan to bring the scope of water utilities operations into his department.
“It will work. I’m not saying it’s going to be seamless, but we will make it as smooth as possible,” Edmonds said at the time.
On July 18, former water utilities general manager Mark Smith resigned, and Buddy Kinney, director of operations for the utilities, was asked to head up the utilities in the interim.
City officials also agreed to form a water advisory board that will work closely with the public works department to come up with recommendations on utilities operations, projects and issues.
The situation has left water utilities employees, as well as residents, with questions about the future of the
water utilities, and city officials are working to allay those concerns.
Edmonds said he is still hammering out the details of the plan to run the water utilities and it has not yet been written. He noted that licensed, experienced employees there are working to smooth out the transition and continue bringing residents quality drinking water and efficient wastewater treatment.
He and Mayor Frank Hash said some aspects of the plan have been discussed for years and have been implemented since July 17.
For instance, to make the EWU office more inviting and customer friendly, the city has removed the “bullet-proof” glass from the payment stations in the lobby.
The windows were installed years ago when the office was remodeled to improve safety for employees.
At the time, employees and water and sewer commissioners pointed to encounters between angry customers and front line employees.
In one instance, an angry customer borrowed a pen from an employee at the front desk and then tossed the pen over his shoulder as he turned to walk out of the office.
Commissioners and EWU employees said then that the pen nearly struck the front-desk clerk in the face.
Employees also reported that people would walk into the EWU office and wander aimlessly throughout the building.
City officials had long said the installation of the payment windows created a cold and uninviting environment for customers.
Edmonds and Kinney also said some stringent policies are being relaxed at the EWU.
Alderman Billy Blann was one of a few aldermen who complained about some procedures to set up accounts for established customers. Blann previously complained to water and sewer commissioners about having to present documents, such as property deeds, to prove ownership in order to set up accounts for rental properties.
Kinney and an EWU customer service clerk explained that those rules are being eased for customers who are in good standing with the utilities, though the rules will remain in place.
Alderman Willie McGhee, who made the motion on July 17 to abolish the water and sewer commission, also called on the department to treat customers more fairly.
“I have gone up there with some people, and I was shocked about how ugly they were treated,” McGhee said.
He said he has received several complaints from citizens about the slow pace at which the EWU seems to move to repair leaks.
“I got one man who lives close to me now saying there has been a leak in the street in front of his house for years, and he has called the water company I don’t know how many times,” McGhee said. “I have tried to help, but I keep having to go to this person and that person, and the problem still isn’t fixed.”
He also said he recently damaged his own vehicle when the street gave way as he drove through an area where the utilities had been working for some time to make infrastructure repairs.
McGhee called for such issues to flow through the public works department and for the utilities to work as a team with the city.
McGhee and Hash acknowledged concerns that the special meeting was scheduled quickly and representatives from the utilities and the commission were not notified about the meeting.
“I didn’t care if they were there or not. It wasn’t about them. It’s about what’s best for the citizens,” McGhee said bluntly. “This didn’t just come up. This had been going for a long time, and we decided to take action.”
McGhee said that when he learned the meeting had been scheduled, he was asked by Alderwoman Dianne Hammond and Alderwoman Judy Ward to lead the discussion.
“They knew I had gotten a lot of complaints and was familiar with the issues because we had been talking about it for so long,” McGhee said.
Hash said that while Smith implemented some changes to improve customer service and operations at the EWU, “changes weren’t made to the satisfaction of the council.”
“I found out about the meeting two hours before it was called. The council didn’t have to invite the commissioners or Mr. Smith, and they exercised that right,” Hash said.
Blann, who voted against the motion to abolish the water and sewer commission, implored the council at the meeting not to act hastily.
He later wrote in an email that while he agreed the issues that had been cited needed to be addressed, he voted against it because he felt more discussion was in order.
“I wanted to hear more about a plan and have some input to the solution of all the agreed problems,” Blann said. “I have a feeling that each city council member voted yes for different reasons.”
Kinney admitted there have been tensions and concerns among the 60-plus employees at EWU in the days following Smith’s resignation and the dissolution of the water commission.
He said employees have been concerned about the status of their retirement and health insurance plans, both of which are separate from the respective plans of other city employees.
“All of that seems to be kind of leveling off now,” Kinney said.
Edmonds said utilities employees with existing retirement packages under the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System will maintain their plans.
However, he said the matter will be revisited and possibly changed for new employees in the future to join the 401K plan that is offered to other employees with the city, which Kinney also said.
“The retirement plans that are in place now, there will be no changes. We may offer a 401K down the road,” Kinney said.
Kinney said efforts are underway to develop a repair schedule, and residents will soon see some improvements in the way repairs are handled.
He and Edmonds said the public works department is considering the entire scope of EWU operations, including ongoing efforts to repair an aging infrastructure, handle sanitary sewer overflows, operating the multi-user wastewater pipeline to the Ouachita River and address
deteriorating community service lines.
The public works department is “being made aware of some of those things and being exposed to those longterm projects,” Kinney said.
Hash said former water and sewer commissioners — including Pete Parks, Bret Garrett, Bill Luther, Michael Donnella and Robert Rushing — are welcome to apply for
the new advisory board.
While none of the former commissioners have expressed interest in serving on the new board, Hash said some have offered their assistance.
Parks said he has met with Hash and Edmonds about serving as a special assistant/consultant to the city to offer more than two decades of experience as a commissioner and share institutional knowledge about water and wastewater projects. He said Hash seemed receptive to the
Blann also offered his help to Edmonds and the public works department, saying, “I only want what is best for El Dorado citizens.”
Those who are interested in serving on the five-member advisory board may request an application from the City Clerk’s office by calling 870-881-4877.
The city council has not set a deadline to submit applications.
Utility: Pictured above and below, are the El Dorado Water Utilities facility on Champagnolle Road.