It happened last year in Fosters. Now, it’s happening again in Lake View and the McCalla community. Homeowners are being charged incredible amounts of money simply because their homes are connected to a privately-owned sewer system.
Customers have complained that the system’s rates are unreasonable – the minimum charge is $100 per month -- and its billing practices are unfair. In one instance, a couple on the system has accumulated a $20,000 bill, much of it unrelated to actual sewer usage. Local and state governments have failed these taxpayers.
Imagine you just bought your dream home. A nice place nestled in the quiet community of Lake View. You’re about halfway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, but far enough off the beaten path that you can still enjoy country living. That is until you get your first sewer bill.
You see, J. Michael “Mike” White owns the company that provides your sewer service. You have to go elsewhere for water. He provides services only for what is going out. And he sets the rates. He decides the terms. And he’s a very good example of why you should never sign any type of legal document without reading it first, and preferably allowing a lawyer who is paid by you to do the same.
In that fine print, you’ll find that White can charge you for the uncollected debt the previous owners of your home incurred. That’s right. He makes you pay for the debt that he failed to collect from the last owners. So you have just purchased a new home, and found out that you’re saddled with a huge debt from the previous owners; well, it is about to get worse. Although White doesn’t provide you with water, he’s able to shut yours off. If you try to sue him to get it cut back on, he might also tack his own legal fees onto your bill.
It gets even worse. If local officials try to step in, White could simply stop any new property from tying into his system, which means that one private individual has the means to halt all economic development in the area.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management regulates the operation of privately owned sewer systems. However, there is no oversight or regulation of rates and no consumer protection efforts. The state’s Public Service Commission regulates other utility providers, but it does not regulate sewer systems.
State Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would bring White’s services under the state’s Public Service Commission. Wingo said, at first, he was going to include all private sewer systems in the bill, but that would have required the PSC to grow significantly. Well, maybe it needs to. We’re sure the folks in Fosters would agree.
The PSC was created to protect the public’s interest. If one private system can cause these issues and require statewide legislation, then our only problem with Wingo’s bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. If the PSC needs to grow so that taxpayers are protected, then cut government somewhere else.