Work is underway to assess and repair the water and wastewater system of the city of Perla after a circuit court judge earlier this month appointed Central Arkansas Water as the system’s receiver.
Circuit Judge Stephen Shirron of the 7th Judicial Circuit, which covers Hot Spring and Grant counties, on Dec. 9 placed the insolvent Perla water system into receivership.
His ruling came as a result of a Perla ratepayer’s lawsuit that claimed local officials had run afoul of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, created a nuisance and violated Arkansas law on solid waste. An amended complaint cited overflowing sewage and frequent boil orders.
Perla is a tiny community of just a couple hundred residents located a short distance down the road from Malvern.
At a board meeting Thursday, Central Arkansas Water Chief Executive Officer Tad Bohannon noted that under the court order, Central Arkansas Water was not required to use any of its own money for the work in Perla.
Bohannon told board members that the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission one day earlier had approved a $225,000 grant as part of the initial assessment work for the Perla system. He said officials had meetings coming up with the commission to talk about additional steps.
Referring to concerns about “what this is taking,” Bohannon said Central Arkansas Water was using a limited number of crews. Officials were talking to contractors about performing some of the work that needs to be done in Perla, he said.
He reported that Perla’s staff was still operating the office, accepting payments and receiving phone calls.
Bohannon said Perla uses an outside accounting firm. Cynthia Edwards, Central Arkansas Water’s director of finance, was meeting with them, according to Bohannon.
Central Arkansas Water Operations Manager Doug Farler told board members that when work began Dec. 10, none of the Perla’s wastewater system’s three lift stations were operational.
A crew worked its way through the pump stations, Farler said. The third station was a total loss with no infrastructure left to repair, he reported. Pumps were on a truck on the way to Arkansas at that moment, Farler said.
He said once the workers went through the main pump stations, they started going to individual homeowners and looked for the most egregious problems.
On the water side, Blake Weindorf, Central Arkansas Water’s chief operating officer, told board members that officials have been gathering maps and populating GPS points to help create a flushing plan to turn over water in the system.
Officials attended a Perla City Council meeting Monday night, he said. A Perla page on Central Arkansas Water’s website as well as a hotline for customers to call were up, Weindorf said.
In response to a question from a board member, Bohannon said Central Arkansas Water must report to the judge. Bohannon said Shirron expects updates every six months, although Central Arkansas Water might update him before then.
“We’ll certainly update the community more frequently than that,” Bohannon said.
Asked if Central Arkansas Water has any involvement in reimbursing Malvern — Perla buys water wholesale from the county seat next door, but has fallen into a $355,000 debt, which resulted in a separate ruling from Shirron in which the judge ordered Perla to pay — Bohannon indicated Central Arkansas Water was not directly responsible.
“The system, the city of Perla, will need to pay its bills, including its past due bills,” he told the board.
He added that Malvern “has been very willing to work with us on how and the timing,” explaining that Malvern wanted them to stay up-to-date on the current bills but was not expecting an immediate check for the past due amount.
Asked by board chair Jim McKenzie how Perla got in “such wretched, wretched shape,” Bohannon thought for a few moments and mused that the judge had asked the same question during the proceedings.
“This is a classic case of lack of resources and unwillingness to raise the rates to the level that they needed to be raised to have the resources available to operate the system,” Bohannon said, and referred to the influence of a two-year election cycle on elected officials.