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Facing Racism and Dire Mismanagement, Alabamans Got Their Water Board Removed

An expert has been appointed to take over Prichard’s embattled water board after it defaulted on a $55 million loan.

PRICHARD, Alabama —— On a hot afternoon in September, Angela Robinson Adams walked to her backyard, where the recent rain showers created “her own swimming pool.” Adams’ yard rarely floods, but the streets in her Alabama Village neighborhood often do.

She had little water pressure in her home, so she called the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board, the local utility that distributes water to Prichard and the city of Chickasaw. After initially hitting a dead-end with the utility company, she hired a plumber, who informed her of a leak from the rusted water line from the city that connects to her valve in the backyard.

She worked quickly to fix the issue, so she didn’t receive “a surprise bill in the mail,” she said.

For years, residents in the 91 percent Black rural Alabama town have complained about high water bills, despite having the same monthly water usage. Generally, Adams’ bill is about $100 a month, she said. For NaTasha Burpo, 51, who lives near Adams, her water bill is $210. For others, bills have been as high as $7,500.

The issues stem from 80-year-old pipes, excessive leaks, low-system pressure, and old water meters, which can potentially lead to public health concerns, according to a February compliance report by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. As a result, the water company loses nearly $2.7 million annually, and is facing several lawsuits, including one from Synovus Bank after recently defaulting on a $55 million loan it secured in 2019 to make repairs to its infrastructure.

The area in most dire shape — representing 18 percent of the water loss systemwide — is Alabama Village where Adams lives, a community of at least 40 people plagued by worn-out roads, crime, abandoned and dilapidated houses, and overgrown weeds and bushes, which is casually used as a trash dump.

“They bring everything over here,” Adams, 59, told Capital B. “You want to get rid of something, throw it in the Village.”

In an effort to pay down its debt and cut losses, the board is mulling whether it will disconnect water service to Alabama Village or use eminent domain to force them out, shifting the fallout from the board’s negligence onto the residents.

Residents in this majority-Black town of 19,000, where the median income is about $32,000, blame the water board commissioners for failing to make needed repairs and mismanaging funds. Recently, former employees were accused of using the utility’s funds to make personal purchases of merchandise by Gucci and Louis Vuitton. This has resulted in higher rates and unreliable water service.

In an urgent plea, residents are calling for the dissolution of the board and transfer of services over to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, the utility Prichard purchases water from. This week, a judge granted their wish when he ruled in favor of Synovus Bank to appoint a third party receiver to take over the water company. Also, the Southern Environmental Law Center petitioned the federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in.

Prichard isn’t alone, as Black rural and urban communities across the country are struggling with upkeep of roads, bridges, and sanitary sewer systems built decades ago. Years of disinvestment, a declining tax base, and lack of access to resources can negatively affect the health and safety of its residents.

For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, the majority-Black state capital, residents were left without running water due to aging infrastructure and limited funding. For years, families have been exposed to contaminants and health challenges. Only last year did the federal government appoint a third-party manager to oversee the water system.

Soon, this could be the fate of the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board, but the troubled utility can’t proceed until a judge decides. Prichard’s board members did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time of publication.

A History of Neglect

The water issues date back at least 30 years, residents told Capital B. In 1995, 13 residents and the estate of a deceased resident sued the board because it failed to properly maintain and operate its street water and sewer drainage system. The residents argued it caused the sewage to overflow into their yard and inside their homes after heavy rain periods. In a 1998 ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court decided the water board was liable for its failure to correct the problem, which resulted in a judgment for $452,500.

Severia Campbell Morris, 77, heard about the damaging effects of “the sewage spill” after returning home to Prichard from Chicago in 2001. She wasn’t shocked or surprised, though, especially since she’s been an advocate for residents for the past two decades. She founded the group United Concerned Citizens of Prichard to fight back against environmental injustice.

Today, she and others have expressed similar concerns, particularly around the water prices. At one point, Prichard shut off water service to customers because they did not pay a $15 municipal fee, a tacked-on expense to the water bill that covers police, fire protection, and trash pickup. And just last month, the board approved a 22 percent rate increase for customers, who already pay some of the highest water rates in the state.

Some people are moving away because they can’t afford the bills, Campbell Morris added.

“When you open your water bill, it’s fear because you don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Your bill isn’t going to be under $58. It may be $5,000. It’s unbelievable. This city is run by us, and we don’t take care of each other.”

Brandon Williams, 42, owns several properties in Alabama Village, including a home next to Adams. He recalled being billed for 10,000 gallons of water, even though his unit was unoccupied. One church in the area received a bill for $7,500, despite the building being vacant since 2021.

Williams hoped to get answers, so he attended several city meetings and community meetings, but it’s been a “reality show” instead of a space for resolution. The only way he, and other citizens, learn about the decisions being made in the city is mostly from the local news station, they say.

It’s difficult, he says, to get local officials or city workers on the phone to check on their concerns, such as the lack of transparency and possibility of being removed from their homes. The board has already started the appraisal process. It also voted to end service for new accounts, meaning no one else in Alabama Village can get water service.

Several residents told Capital B it seems officials are trying to “shut down the Village,” even though the crumbling infrastructure affects citizens outside of their neighborhood.

“I stayed in the Village because my house was paid for. My kids were raised here. Even my grandkids come to the house and we play in the front yard. I love sitting on my porch, drinking my coffee, and looking at the squirrels and birds,” Adams said. “I can’t afford another house, not to mention trying to start over again at my age.”

For Williams, it would mean taking away the generational wealth he’s building for his family. Another issue Williams and Adams mentioned is the safety concerns because of the low water pressure. In a few instances, residents lost their homes in a fire because the hydrants didn’t have enough water pressure or there was not a nearby hydrant to use.

It’s expensive to conduct regular maintenance or make upgrades to infrastructure, especially in areas with a low tax base due to economic decline and population loss, said Daryl A. Carter, professor, associate dean, and director of Black American Studies at East Tennessee State University.

This has been the case for Prichard, which sits on the border of Africatown, a historic community founded by formerly enslaved West African people who arrived on the Clotilda, the last documented slave ship to reach the United States.

Incorporated in 1925, Prichard grew as shipbuilding companies built housing for its workers and other services such as streetlights and water works. By the 1960s, the population swelled to about 47,000, but declined over the years due to white flight and major employers leaving the area. The town didn’t elect its first Black mayor until 1972. The city struggled to recover and declared bankruptcy in 1999 and 2009.

“There’s a deliberate underfunding of those communities, and in the South, including the state of Alabama … when the white people leave, you notice that the money leaves — that includes tax dollars,” Carter said. Beyond white flight, some of it is political will. “The other part of losing that revenue is that the legislature, they’re not going to give money to support that.”

Additionally, Carter mentioned that in sparsely populated areas, leaders may be passionate about creating change for their communities, but may not have the tools, knowledge, or resources to hire or appoint trained staff to effectively maintain its water systems, for example.

“There’s an economic cost,” he said. “We’re human beings, and whether we like it or not … what impacts one side of town definitely impacts what the other side of town is feeling and experiencing.”

‘A Cautionary Tale’ for Black Communities

Inside the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board, the utility has struggled to overcome the workforce challenges, limited resources, and misuse of funds. Last year, the utility filed a request for $333 million in pandemic-related aid, the largest ask in the state, with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to fix its system.

Instead, the department awarded Prichard up to $400,000 in a reimbursement grant for a financial audit. If the utility passes the audit, it will be eligible for the next round of funding, according to an agency spokesperson. The Mobile County Commission recently approved an allocation of $1.5 million to Prichard’s water board to pay for repairs and maintenance to its water system

Weeks before the Prichard Water and Sewer Board applied for the funding, the FBI raided the home of a former manager, Nia Bradley, who was accused of misusing company funds. An audit found that Bradley paid to stay in five-star hotels and buy items from Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Other individuals made purchases at a business called Unlimited Auto and at GameStop.

In November, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office arrested two people who worked at the water board, including Bradley, for alleged misuse of public funds or questionable credit card purchases, including items from Gucci and Louis Vuitton, totaling over $3 million.

“[Bradley’s] pay was above six figures. I mean, it’s a contract, it’s a compensation package with quarterly bonuses, with salary and signing bonuses,” Jason Darley, her attorney, said. “She was the operations manager; she was well compensated by the Pritchard Board. And when they weren’t able to compensate her, we believe that there were authorizations for expenditures as part of her compensation.”

Darley did not respond to Capital B’s requests for comment.

But, residents say they shouldn’t suffer the consequences of years of disinvestment. Given the fraught history with the board, some residents, including Adams and Williams, are moving forward with legal action.

Attorney Roger Varner, based in Mobile, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 35 households in Alabama Village against the board in response to the threats to cut off water service and foreclose on their homes if they had “dangerous weeds” or were not in “safe condition.” They are also alleging harm due to the “water loss caused by poorly maintained infrastructure, contamination of the water sold by Prichard Water Board, and the subsequent transmission of unsafe and/or tainted water to Prichard Water Board customers.”

“This is a cautionary tale that if you don’t hold your water board accountable or when a water board runs amok for decades — whether it’s intentional, fraud, or straight-up negligent — it should be alarming because it can happen to anybody if you aren’t careful and particularly impact on those on the lower socioeconomic totem pole,” Varner said. “When pipes deteriorate and you have water loss, you run afoul of the Clean Water Act and certain standards for water quality.”

Other residents have protested the board’s actions. This isn’t the first time residents have called for the dissolution of the board.

In 2012, voters approved a statewide referendum to dissolve the water board and have the entire system transferred to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System. But in 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the way the legislature approved the referendum was not done correctly, reported.

The following year, voters approved a countywide referendum, but days before the vote, the water board approved a five-year, multimillion dollar contract with Severn Trent, a water supply company, to manage the system. As a result, the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System backed out.

Campbell Morris, with United Concerned Citizens of Prichard, helped lead the charge to dissolve the board in 2012. Today she is working on a petition and letter to send to the judge in favor of receivership.

“We are hoping and praying for this because if not, we know we are in serious, serious, serious trouble. We won’t be able to make it. We don’t have any money,” Campbell Morris said.

In June, Synovus Bank filed a lawsuit against the board after it missed nearly $1 million in payments. The lawsuit alleges the board failed to provide an audit for the past two fiscal years or pay reasonable fees to the bond trustee and its lawyer.

“PWWSB also is suffering from gross mismanagement, a lack of fiscal integrity, and endangering public safety by failing to maintain vital system infrastructure,” the lawsuit said.

As a result, the bank is asking Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Michael Youngpeter to appoint a receiver to oversee daily operations.

Board President Russell Heidelburg told NBC 15 earlier this year that the default stems from money being improperly spent years before he took the position. Heidelberg, who has served on the board since 2008, did not respond to a request for comment.

While waiting for the ruling, the water utility approved a bid from two companies — Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., a global investment firm, and Inframark LLC., a private water infrastructure service — to pay back its debt and invest in its infrastructure.

Under the formation of Prichard Water Partners LLC, the companies plan to invest between $50 million to $100 million to replace pipes and equipment, automate the wastewater treatment plants, and pay millions back to Synovus Bank, according to a local news outlet. They are currently in negotiations, and the proposal would allow the companies to take over operations in Prichard for the next 30 to 40 years.

However, the board’s proposal will not advance forward because Youngpeter decided on Oct. 11 to appoint a receiver to take over the water company.

While the future of the city’s water company hangs in the balance, Adams still worries about being pushed out and questions if city agencies will continue to abandon Alabama Village.

“I see other parts of Prichard where they pick up trash … and cut the grass [at vacant lots]. I hadn’t seen a garbage man in two weeks,” Adams said. “I try not to think about it, but I’m hoping that somebody can come in and save us.”

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