Tri-City Ledger -

By Joe Thomas
Ledger Editor 

Selling the gas system is first step

 

March 7, 2019



When I first read the grand jury report about the town of Century, I thought 'Ouch', thinking it was a major slap in the face of the entire town.

I read it again. It still stings. But the one thing that stood out to me was the statement the grand jury made in its report that said “Based upon our review we have determined that criminal charges re not apporopriate and therefore return a no true bill. That's where the rubber meets the road at this point.

The next sentence said “We are, however, deeply concerned by the testimony (of 18 witnesses) we have heard and believe that the citizens of Century and of Escambia County should be made aware of our findings and recommendations.

The key word there is 'recommendations'. The grand jury determined no criminal acts occurred but cited numerous situations that should cause concern. But grand jury recommendations are just that, recommendations.

We've read grand jury reports before with recommendations to fix this and that and to employ more people in this position or that. But those recommendations are left up to the powers to be to see if they are implemented.

To say there is a mess in Century is an understatement.

The grand jury made several recommendations but the one that stood out to me was the panel saying the town needed to sell all the assets of its utility services that include sanitation, natural gas, water and sewer. The grand jury said the sale of those assets should be used to repay amounts borrowed from restricted funds.

I talked with Mayor Henry Hawkins and agree with him that if the town sells all of its utilities the town may as well shut its doors.

I also agree with a comment that Council President made to my reporter Gretchen McPherson that the town of Century may need to sell its natural gas department. I also agree with Mayor Hawkins that natural gas 'used to be the cash cow' for the town of Century, like it used to be the cash cow for the town of Flomaton.

The grand jury report said Century lost $303,427 in 2017 in its natural gas department nd $224,311 the year before. The grand jury also said the losses will be larger in 2018, but there was something in the report that said the operating loss figures included 'depreciation'.

Take 'depreciation' out and the cash loss is not as bad, but it appears to me that the reason the gas system is in such bad shape is that the town has not been upgrading the system for years.

I was one of the ones who advocated and applauded when the town of Flomaton got out of the natural gas business because I knew the town didn't have the resources to upgrade or expand the system. Drive through Flomaton today and you will see South Alabama Gas (which bought Flomaton's system) digging up roads to repair and replace aging and antiquated gas lines. My bet is if you asked somebody at the top of South Alabama Gas they'd tell you they wish they never purchased the system.

Flomaton got cash money and a franchise fee in the sale and now has no liability. Sounded good to me at the time and it's something Century needs to consider. No, I'll take it a step forward and say Century needs to sell its natural gas system if they can find somebody to buy it. Giving it away and collecting a franchise fee would benefit the town.

Maintaining utilities is expensive and no council member anywhere wants to raise water, sewer and gas rates. But if those rates don't include maintenance it can hit hard.

The report tells me there are more problems than Century only collecting 41.9 percent of the natural gas it purchased; but that's a start. Sell the gas system if somebody will buy it.

I also agree with something Mayor Hawkins told me Tuesday afternoon,”We are starting at zero”.

That's where the mayor and council needs to start to save the town.

 
 

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