Fu­ture un­clear af­ter dis­so­lu­tion of com­mis­sion

El Dorado News-Times - - Front Page - By Tia Lyons Staff Writer

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.

Changes

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.”

Wa­ter util­i­ties

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

idea.

Blann also of­fered his help to Ed­monds and the pub­lic works depart­ment, say­ing, “I only want what is best for El Do­rado cit­i­zens.”

Wa­ter ad­vi­sory

board

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.

Pho­tos by Ter­rance Arm­stard

Util­ity: Pic­tured above and be­low, are the El Do­rado Wa­ter Util­i­ties fa­cil­ity on Cham­pag­nolle Road.

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