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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Little Rock's government in the sewer

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 7:06 AM

LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS? Wasterwater actions demand some.
  • LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS? Wasterwater actions demand some.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Claudia Lauer, one of the most productive reporters currently working in these parts, produced an outstanding piece of work this morning. Pay wall.

She details how the Little Rock Wastewater Utility — because of lack of response to advertised calls for volunteers for a new program aimed at identifying sewer service lines in need of repairs — enlisted some volunteers for inspections and minor equipment add-ons worth up to about $1,000 per home. Recipients? Sewer chief Reggie Corbitt. Two of his sons. City Director Joan Adcock. City Director Stacy Hurst. Banker Barnett Grace. Former Sen. David Pryor. And many more familiar names. This didn't lead to free sewer line repairs, I was at least relieved to note. Adcock, who defended her freebie and her failure to report it on ethics forms, apparently needs work on her home's service line, but hasn't done it.

Police are investigating (what isn't exactly clear). The matter arose in the investigation of the Wastewater Utility's payment of $24,000 in tax arrearages for a former employee. That matter has, in turned, raised still unanswered questions about how much money the utility spent in legal bills tussling with that tax matter for years. And that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

SEWER CHIEF: Reggie Corbitt and sons received free inspection program.
  • SEWER CHIEF: Reggie Corbitt and sons received free inspection program.
This is the latest in a string of complaints about the sewer utility dating back years. Many of them were encapsulated in a report prepared by the city attorney in 2006. I'll try to link to a copy of it when I get to work (UPDATE: sorry, too extensive for ready copying). The particulars over the years range from criticism of the utility over the process that led to a new treatment plant in West Little Rock, to spending on office remodeling, to Corbitt's pay, highest in city government, and generally high pay on staff. The utility's harshest critics say the environmental problems cited in the ongoing Sierra Club lawsuit, which have led to a series of rate increases, could have been mitigated by more effective management over the years.

In short: the utility has long had critics and strong foes within city government. That leads to whistleblowing on the likes of appearances of favoritism in a new sewer inspection program.

The sewer utility, at a minimum, was brainless to use insiders, family and VIPs for this program. Lauer's careful explanation could lead you to conclude the small benefit, primarily a free inspection, came with some hassle, however.

UPDATE ON THIS POINT: I wouldn't want this free inspection myself and I've now had five people tell me the same thing, plus a complaint from one of the lucky volunteers who said the sewer work tore up a $150 or so worth of his landscaping. Do you really want to find out that a sewer line buried beneath concrete driveways and patios needs to be ripped up and replaced at a huge cost? Of course not. That could be one reason why the volunteer program didn't produce a groundswell of reaction. A Wastewater defender said the project grew out of a huge rate review process that included many environmentalists and the conclusion was that, particularly among older lines in the Heights and Southwest Little Rock, the utility had to get a grip on the extent of possible contributions to environmental problems from leaking service lines. In this view, those who got the inspections were doing the city a favor, not receiving much of one.

But the issue here is bigger than the Wastewater Utility and whether this project was well-handled or not.

The City Board of Directors sets the utility's rates, including the recent increase. The members of the utility's governing board, the Sanitary Sewer Committee, are appointed by the City Board, on the mayor's recommendation, for four-year terms.

The current members:

Ken Griffey - Chair
Marilyn Perryman - Vice Chair
Richard L. Mays, jr. - Secretary
Jean Block - Member
Pete Hornibrook - Member
Cindy Miller - Member
Maurice Rigsby - Member

You'd think control of money and bosses would give the City Board the ability to clean up a festering problem, if one existed, not just receive and file another report from the city attorney or cluck at another newspaper account of poor judgment — or worse. This is where strong mayors, with appointment power, come in. They demand performance from appointees and demand vigorous response from them when problems develop. The lingering concerns about the Wastewater Utility helped explain the drawn-out process by which the City Board finally granted a recent rate increase. In return, it got exactly what?

My concerns extend beyond the Wastewater Utility. See the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, to date wholly funded by a promised $22 million in city sales tax money, but wholly unanswerable to voters, the mayor or the City Board of Directors. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce controls more votes on that board than the city of Little Rock, which provides its money. The members include a Perry County resident who's long fought protection of the city water supply. If city voters come to feel about that Board as many feel about the Wastewater Utility, they'll have even less ability to do anything about it. See also Central Arkansas Water. It happens that a friend who's been a long critic of the Wastewater Utility is also unhappy about CAW's expansion of water service to suburban communities that contribute to white flight and sap Little Rock. Right or wrong though he might be about policy, the city-created water utility's transition to a regional board has made it equally unanswerable to the city ratepayers who created and built it in the first place. A mayor's bully pulpit is our only defense.

News of another city department in disarray was poorly timed against last night's City Board vote to move forward on renewal of a property tax for streets and drainage. It likely will be called to a vote at a single-issue election Sept. 11, following the successful template employed by Library Director Bobby Roberts. Keep tax votes off general election ballots with their high turnouts. Try to identify and motivate a core group of voters who appreciate your work. The progressive crowd is typically amenable to ongoing street and drainage programs (I am), both for the economic stimulus they provide and the importance of continued maintenance to core infrastructure. But in light of a neighborhood-destroying, unaccountable Tech Park Authority and news of, at a minimum, poor judgment at Wastewater, an old saying comes to mind: Fool me once ...

PS — Speaking of being fooled: You'll want to see Leslie Newell Peacock's report this week on the neighborhood "win" that Joan Adcock announced over Tech Park location. It wasn't.

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