A grassroots effort to force more accountability from the found a receptive audience within chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly Tuesday night. The House Finance Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would place the water authority under the jurisdiction of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and the majority of the audience supported the idea.
State Rep. Joy Hearn of Barrington said, “This is to provide transparency for the ratepayers.” She and Rep. Raymond Gallison of Bristol, who was chairman of Tuesday’s hearing, co-sponsored the bill.
Three Bristol County residents attended the hearing to urge passage of a bill that would put the often-criticized water authority in the position of answering to a state oversight committee. The water authority, managed by a group of nine volunteer, appointed “directors,” has been assailed in the past two years by citizens and public officials critical of rate hikes, fiscal management, employee benefits, infrastructure protection, public transparency, emergency preparedness and overall communication.
Bristol resident Marina Peterson told the finance committee how she’s attempted to get information from water authority leadership, to no avail. “It’s impossible to get straight answers,” she said. “It’s all very confusing.”
Margaret Kane of Barrington, president of Operation Clean Government, said this group needs “financial transparency,” just like half a dozen of the state’s major water suppliers.
Gary Morse, also of Barrington and Operation Clean Government, hit the committee with a string of numbers to demonstrate his view of fiscal mismanagement. He and Operation Clean Government compared the Bristol County Water Authority with the Kent County Water Authority. The two groups are of similar structure, serving multiple municipalities, but Kent County is under PUC jurisdiction.
They compared salaries within the two water authority staffs from 2007 through 2009. “The Bristol County wages exceeded Kent County’s by more than 30 percent,” Morse said. “Looking ahead, it seems that this is systemic.” He also talked about the authority’s debt service ratio (the ratio of cash to pay down debt vs. total indebtedness) – which sits at a precarious 1.26. In 1995, Morse told the finance committee, that ratio was 5.56.
Water authority executive director Pasquale DeLise told the finance committee members that placing his agency under the PUC would put its long-term loans at risk of default. The water authority’s multi-million-dollar long-term bonds require that the control of water rates and fees must reside with the local agency, not the state.
The House committee did not take a vote on the bill. That will typically occur at a later date.