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Alderman’s proposal surprises colleagues

Last week’s announcement by Alderman Burch Johnson that he planned to introduce legislation at next Monday’s City Council meeting to merge Maumelle Water Management with the city apparently caught everyone by surprise — both water commissioners and fellow aldermen.

The former mayor’s announcement came at the end of a lengthy council meeting that included an involved presentation on a proposed new Maumelle School District and a number of other issues.

Johnson objected to the note on April 15’s calendar in the Monitor about his plans to propose the ordinance then at the next council meeting because it used the word “force.”

He said he went out of his way and read prepared remarks to be sure and get across the point he intended to work with the water commissioners and others to strike an amicable deal.

Johnson did say in his prepared remarks that he wanted to work with everyone in a peaceful way and include everyone to work together to resolve any issues to merge the Maumelle Water Management with the city.

In a response to Johnson’s initiative, the three Maumelle Water Management water commissioners said this week through their general manager Barry Heller that they would be happy to meet with aldermen or anyone else to discuss this and other issues if certain requirements are met.

Among their requirements is that aldermen acquaint themselves with state law applying to special suburban improvement districts so all the time won’t be spent answering questions about that structure and what it can and cannot do.

As a separate government entity itself, asking MWM to merge with another governmental agency is likened to asking the City Council to merge with the Pulaski County Quorum Court, one observer noted.

Heller said as the senior staff representative at MWM he didn’t have any comment or opinion on Johnson’s proposed merger.

But longtime commissioner Mary Peyton did. First she said she was shocked that her longtime friend Burch Johnson didn’t even mention the idea to her before he floated the idea at a council meeting.

MWM currently owes $14.5 million to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, formerly known as the soil and water commission, in bonded indebtedness that was used to build up MWM’s infrastructure. They should be paid off in 17 to 18 years she said.

Peyton questioned how the city could come up with the money to pay off those bonds plus the value of MWM’s infrastructure that Heller said in the last audit was estimated at $51 million in capital assets.

“It’s just not feasible,” Peyton said.

She said she and the other commissioners were more than willing to engage in any discussion if those seeking the discussion will “make sure they understand the law.”

She noted MWM’s structure as an improvement district has limitations on what it can and cannot do.

Heller said the organization is higher regulated through two state agencies — the Arkansas Departments of Health and Environmental Quality plus the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

All of those entities have strict requirements on what MWM must do and what t can’t be a part of, Heller said.

Peyton also said she would have told her friend Johnson that this discussion is a little premature. MWM commissioned an outside entity to conduct a study for it that is due back this December and it will cover many issues that will be the subject of the meeting.

Also she noted the newly appointed customer advisory committee should have input into any such discussion.

Any research right now should be directed towards providing an adequate water supply and to take a hard look at the use of sprinklers and their water usage in Maumelle. MWM should increase its capacity to serve all sprinklers, she said.

Peyton didn’t mention it but several Maumelle residents refused to turn off lawn sprinklers last summer in the midst of the biggest drought and water shortage in the history of the organization.

MWM staff turned some of those sprinklers off but only one customer was fined, officials said at the time.

But Peyton noted it would take greater infrastructure to meet those demands. And that infrastructure has multi-million dollar price tags, she said.

Peyton also stated that MWM manager Bryon Smith officially holds the license from state and federal agencies for the organization and can be held criminally liable if he doesn’t operate it properly such as letting the water pressure get below a certain amount that would institute a boil order.

There are just so many aspects of the organization and its structure that city officials and the public isn’t aware of, Peyton said. That’s just one reason the commissioners want those asking for a merger to spend a little effort to acquaint themselves with the law and a basic knowledge of the requirements those agencies place upon them so they can have an intellectual discussion rather than an emotional one.

Heller noted Mayor Mike Watson had earlier this year asked MWM for some detailed information that it is in the process of putting together.

MWM announced late last year that they were having discussions with Central Arkansas Water on a number of issues from CAW selling water to MWM on an emergency basis to MWM buying all its water from CAW.

Heller said those discussions are ongoing.

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