Members of the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission targeted its customer service practices and service cut-off policy at the utility’s Thursday meeting, with utility commission and Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey voicing his displeasure the most.
“Our customer service really stinks ... I’m really upset about how we deal with our customers,” Harvey said.
The discussion was sparked after commissioners heard from customer Renee Billings during a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.
The JWSC cut her water and sewer service off two months ago due to overdue bills, she said, and she’s been carrying water from a relative’s house in containers to clean and cook for her children.
Billings was making payments through the utility’s payment plan system — in which customers can pay accrued overdue bills in increments — but said she couldn’t afford to keep up with those payments on top of her mortgage and electricity bills.
Commissioners have discussed her case with utility staff, Executive Director Jimmy Junkin said, and they’re working on changes to the payment plan to make it easier on low-income rate-payers.
“We’re going to be working this afternoon to try to come up with a program to facilitate Miss Billings and others in her situation to quickly get back into an affordable, doable payment plan that will allow them to maintain service,” Junkin said. “We’re going to work on this today and get some kind of resolution today.”
It was then that Harvey said the JWSC needs to do something about its “adversarial” reputation in customer service situations. In particular, he said he’s heard many complaints that the utility’s customer service representatives are callous towards low-income users.
“When we tell our people ‘That’s not our problem’ or ‘You figure it out,’ that’s no way of dealing with people,” Harvey said.
Junkin attempted to respond, but Harvey cut him off, saying he’s been hearing too much negative feedback to ignore.
“You can say we don’t do that or not, but if you hear it one time, you say ‘maybe it’s something else.’ You hear it twice, you say, ‘maybe something really is happening.’ But when you hear it constantly, it really is happening. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s not an elephant. It’s something there that we need to deal with,” Harvey said.
While Administration Director Jay Sellers, who oversees the utility’s customer service division, said he understands Harvey’s concerns, it’s something only the commission has the power to change.
“I think our customer service staff is top notch,” Sellers said after the meeting. “We have a customer service staff bound to say no sometimes because the ordinance requires it. It’s a law we have to follow ... We want to care for the customer, but we have to follow those rules. We aren’t heartless.”
Commission Chairman Ben Turnipseed said each member of the commission was aware of the situation. He pointed out the commission has a communications and finance committee, and commissioners will make a change to help low-income customers as soon as they can draw up a new policy.
“We want our customers, who are paying their bill, to make sure they have water as long as they’re current. It appears you want to be current in your bill, and we appreciate you wanting to take responsibility,” Turnipseed said, responding to Billings.
During committee updates, Turnipseed told the other commissioners that utility staff presented a map to the facilities committee delineating the exact locations that do and do not have access to the public water and sewer systems or have access to only one. He said the utility will use the map and population growth numbers from Glynn County’s Community Development Department to assist in planning system expansion.
He also noted the JWSC is preparing to bid out a study to estimate the cost of expanding the sewer and water systems into areas of the county without them.
In other business, commissioners voted unanimously to approve an unsolicited proposal from Wade Jurney Homes for the Saddle Brooke neighborhood in the north mainland area.
Turnipseed said the developer, Jurney, needs to connect 41 platted residential lots in the development to the sewer system, but the sewer pump stations serving the area doesn’t have enough capacity.
The developer is proposing to pay for upgrades to the station in exchange for guaranteed access. The final agreement may include other arrangements, but the ultimate goal is to increase sewer capacity to allow for new homes.
The next step is for legal representatives and engineering teams for the developer and JWSC to work together on a final contract and engineering designs for the project. If the partnership gets that far, the utility commission will have to approve the final agreement as well.
A model for tracking the movement of a saltwater plume in the groundwater and Floridan aquifer under Brunswick — developed by the U.S. Geological Survey — is nearing completion, and the commission voted to fund further sampling. Sampling will allow the USGS to determine the model’s accuracy.
The USGS asked for $60,000, which the commission unanimously agreed to. As part of an earlier arrangement, the utility is seeking additional funding on behalf of the USGS from Pinova and Georgia-Pacific, as their local plants have by far the largest impact on the plume.
The commission voted unanimously to renew its property and vehicle insurance, to award a contract to smoke- and dye-test the St. Simons Island sewer system and to pay $48,000 for an interior inspection of sewer pipes in the north mainland via camera.
Finally, the commission entered a closed session at the end of the meeting to discuss potential litigation. It took no action on the matter before adjourning.
The utility’s next meeting is scheduled for March 7.