The Jefferson County, Ala., Commission has scheduled the first of three public hearings on sewer rates, which provide the revenue securing the county’s $3.14 billion of defaulted sewer warrants.

Rates have not been raised in more than four years, and the sewer debt was the primary reason the county filed Chapter 9 bankruptcy in November. The loss of general fund revenues was another factor.

“The objective of the sewer rate hearings will be for the commissioners to listen to presentations made by expert witnesses and to receive citizen comments,” said commission president David Carrington.

During the public hearings, Environmental Services Department director David Denard will discuss the costs to operate the sewer system and investments needed to keep it in good working order. Stephanie Rauterkus, a finance professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will discuss the impact of sewer rates on the poor.

An hour will be set aside at each hearing for public comments.

“Since none of the current commissioners were involved in the sewer financings and since none of us have set sewer rates before, we wanted to have a series of public hearings to get input from everyone who is affected by the sewer system or sewer rates, including sewer users, ratepayers, taxpayers and creditors, before coming to any conclusions about what needs to be done,” Carrington said.

Rate increases have been controversial because many of the sewer system’s customers are some of the poorest people in the county. Though Carrington said no sewer rate proposal is currently “on the table for the commission to consider at this time,” the county has hired Chicago-based Galardi Rothstein Group as a rate consultant.

Galardi was hired as the result of proceedings in the bankruptcy case earlier this year when the judge removed the sewer system from control of a state court-appointed receiver and placed it under the county’s authority. At the time, Judge Thomas Bennett said he expected the county to make the necessary decisions to run the sewer system, including rate hikes to support it.

The commission will hold the first hearing on the sewer system June 12 in Birmingham, the county seat.

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