Written by Tom Knighton
Last week, Albanians became aware of a potential environmental disaster area right in their own back yards when word surfaced that Water, Gas & Light was being required by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to clean up an abandoned manufactured gas plant. At the Albany City Commission meeting this morning, commissioner Bob Langstaff took issue with WG&L on multiple issues related to the situation.
WG&L officials have asked the City of Albany for $700,000 to begin the clean-up process, but some estimates say the price could easily reach $10 million. In particular, they have asked for some of the money in the Long Term Financial Planning (LTFP) fund to cover the clean-up expenses. This money comes from the MEAG funds the city divided among the LTFP fund, WG&L, and the City of Albany.
Langstaff reported that WG&L officials claim they don’t have the money to start the cleanup effort and that their reserves are, as Langstaff put it, “next to nothing.” However, Langstaff also said that there were no actual dollar amounts given.
Albany city manager James Taylor was given a letter from state EPD officials on August 3. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the letter was reportedly dated June 29. That’s a five week window before Taylor was notified that the city may have to provide funds for the clean-up of the site, an act that Langstaff described as being similar to the “11th hour” presentation WG&L made regarding the Suntrust Building purchase.
While the clean-up has been the responsibility of WG&L, their declaration of being financially unable to pay for it has commissioner Langstaff arguing that perhaps they shouldn’t manage the cleanup effort. “I don’t think we’re doing right by the taxpayers,” Langstaff said regarding why he feels Taylor’s office should handle the issue.
Commissioner Christopher Pike pointed to the minutes of a 2006 meeting where WG&L officials indicated that they knew the manufactured gas plant would need to be cleaned up. However, as Langstaff pointed out during his presentation, there were no budgetary moves put in place to deal with this eventuality.
Another issue commissioner Langstaff pointed out was WG&L officials decision to accept a $160,000 settlement on an insurance policy on the gas plant land. There appears to be no evidence suggesting that the WG&L board was part of any decision on the policy, but Langstaff argues that it was possible that the city could have gotten a lot more, pointing to an instance where an organization was able to get $14 million on a 50 year old policy.
Langstaff urged commissioners to consider a change in the structure of WG&L, where by the general manager would be hired and fired by the city manager and where the city commissioner would approve WG&L’s budget. Commissioner Pike pointed out that, as things currently stand, WG&L officials enjoy status that no one else in the city gets. The example he cites is where it takes a 2/3 majority to remove a WG&L commissioner, while nothing else in the city takes such a majority.
Commissioner Tommie Postell said, “I’m no longer in favor of beating around the bush with Water, Gas & Light.” Postell went on to say, “The city commission controls this city, not Water, Gas & Light!”
Langstaff’s efforts seemed to face some resistance from Mayor Dorothy Hubbard who referred to the suggestion as a “take over” of the utility. “You can’t take over something you already own,” countered Langstaff.
Also discussed was the controversial “multi-modal” facility. While commissioners struck down an earlier proposed site on Roosevelt, assistant city manager Wes Smith laid out the plans going forward that will require an expenditure of $150,000 for this fiscal year, with additional funds needed next year. The first step will be selecting a new site, which Smith said would take an approximately six months and cost $75,000 to fund another study to find the best site. Phase two will be an environmental review that is expected to take a year and will cost $200,000.
In a cash strapped city, the expectation of additional funds met with some resistance. “I think we’re fixing to throw some money away,” said commissioner Ivey Hines.
Much of the discussion actually centered around acquiring the current bus station and renovating it, an option that Taylor argued could prevent the city from using federal money. In addition, much of the discussion regarding the bus station spun around possibly using imminent domain to acquire the facility.