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Interim WG&L GM: Finances not pretty

ALBANY — Interim Water, Gas & Light General Manager Tom Berry minced no words after listening to the utility’s financial report Thursday morning.

“That’s not a pretty picture,” Berry said.

WG&L Finance Director John Vansant told the Water, Gas & Light Commission board that the utility’s assets-to-liabilities ratio is currently at 2-to-1 ($30 million to $15 million), a figure that Berry called alarming.

“I’ve been in 10 or 11 cities, and that ratio is one of the first indicators I look at,” the interim GM said. “I’ve never seen a municipal utility with that low a ratio; that’s a sad place for us to be. That’s something we have to address.”

Vansant, who noted that WG&L had generated revenues slightly less than $1.4 million under budget in the first two months of the current fiscal year, said the numbers are common for the utility.

“We’re kinda used to operating that way,” Vansant said. “I believe we kept our rates too low for too long. We’re not there now, but for a long period of time our rates were 15 to 20 percent below Georgia Power’s.”

Berry, who has served in a similar capacity in several communities throughout the state, said he’s had no difficulty in pinpointing WG&L’s financial problems. The key, he said after the meeting, is doing something about them.

“You’re really only dealing in two areas: revenues and expenses,” Berry said. “But you can’t fix those problems on the backs of your customers. We’ve got to find other areas to bring about incremental changes.

“There won’t be some huge rate increase. We’ve got to look for ways to decrease expenses and work smarter. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned.”

Another area from Vansant’s report that concerned Berry was the $2.5 million in accrued vacation and sick leave Vansant the utility would owe “if all our employees quit today.”

“That’s a lot of money; I just don’t see many cities accruing that much in vacation and sick time,” Berry said. “That’s a city commission issue, but it’s just not feasible in this economy.”

Berry also pointed out that while WG&L’s roughly 1 percent in uncollected fees each year amounts to between $1 million and $1.5 million, it costs around another $1.5 million in resources utilized to try and collect the debt.

“That’s approaching a $3 million problem,” he said.

The WG&L board also approved janitorial ($92,074) and uniform ($65,000) bids at the meeting and was introduced to the utility’s engineering department by Director George Walls.