BRADENTON, Fla. — Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange Wednesday filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Jefferson County’s sewer ratepayers in the receivership case involving the county’s sewer system.
Strange, who took office in January, said the announcement earlier this week that the court-appointed receiver would seek a 25% rate increase prompted him to get involved.
“We have been watching this case and the filing of the receiver’s report brought it to a head in terms of our decision to intervene in this case,” he told The Bond Buyer. “Somebody needs to be in this case, given the magnitude of the issues, to represent the ratepayers.”
John Young, the court-appointed receiver in charge of the sewer system, filed his first interim report with the court on Tuesday, recommending the first rate increase in three years. He also proposed several programs to assist low-income households with paying and reducing their bills.
Young was appointed to take over the county’s sewer system in September of last year by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Albert Johnson after the trustee for the sewer warrants, Bank of New York Mellon, sued to have the system placed into receivership.
The suit was based on Jefferson County’s default on $3.14 billion of mostly variable- and auction-rate warrants. Most of the warrants are held by banks and insurers though some are also held by pension and hedge funds and individuals.
Bank of New York Mellon declined to comment on the prospect of Strange intervening in the case.
Strange said he has met with county commissioners and the receiver about ongoing negotiations with creditors, which center around sewer system revenues that do not support the level of debt that has been issued.
The county has negotiated with creditors for three years trying unsuccessfully to obtain well over $1 billion in concessions to refinance or restructure the debt and minimize rate increases.
Documents supporting the rate increase are still being studied by the attorney general’s office, Strange said Thursday.
“I think it is an extremely significant increase by any standard, but we are not taking a stand on whether it is just or reasonable,” he said. “Hopefully, the judge will welcome our participation in the case as a party that might help facilitate discussions.”
Strange said he has a background in corporate and business law and understands the important issues to be addressed, as well as the “long and tortured history” involving the sewer system,. “It’s a complicated issue,” he added.
No one in particular asked Strange to get involved in the receivership case, he said.
“This is strictly a decision our office made because we have role to play in cases like this,” ge said. “We are not representing the commission, the creditors, or anybody but the ratepayers.”
Strange said it is too early to say what the next step will be if the judge denies his request to intervene in the receivership case.