More than 150 people packed the Camden-Wyoming fire hall for the Feb. 24 meeting, run by Sen. Brian Bushweller and Rep. Don Blakey, whose districts cover the area served by the CWSWA.

Customers of the Camden Wyoming Sewer and Water Authority turned out in droves last week for a public meeting called to allow those who run the utility to respond to a rash of recent criticism over how much their services cost and how they conduct business.

However, when the two-hour session ended, most said they came away with few answers and, in some cases, even more questions.

More than 150 people packed the Camden-Wyoming fire hall for the Feb. 24 meeting, run by Sen. Brian Bushweller and Rep. Don Blakey, whose districts cover the area served by the CWSWA.

After several meetings with town officials and CWSWA staff, the legislators decided to convene the public forum to address persistent questions related to the utility’s rate structure, water quality, finances and administrative policies.

All questions were required to be submitted in advance so CWSWA officials could respond appropriately. In all, 17 questions were received.

First, the authority showed a PowerPoint presentation detailing the history of the utility, outlining its structure and explaining common complaints — such as why water sometimes comes out of the tap colored by rust or smelling of chlorine.

The presentation defended the authority’s rates, which are lower than Tidewater Utilities and Artesian Water, the largest private water firms in the area.

After the slideshow, Bushweller took CWSWA chairman Mark Dyer to task about the authority’s rate structure.

While Tidewater and Artesian are more expensive, the CWSWA has the fourth most expensive rates of all water and sewer providers in Delaware, said Bushweller. The authority’s rates were 60% higher than the average in 2008.

“That’s the fundamental issue,” Bushweller said. “The rates seem to be very high.”

Dyer responded that the rates charged are necessary to sustain the utility, which operates on a non-profit basis. A large portion of CWSWA’s budget is spent paying off debt related to bonds taken out over the years to make improvements, he said.

Dyer also said rates could drop as much as 8% when one of the authority’s bond obligations is paid off, though he didn’t say when that might happen.

Bushweller also pointed out that even with an 8% rate reduction, CWSWA would still be among the top five most expensive water and sewer utilities in the state.

Next, Dyer began a second PowerPoint presentation that was supposed to answer each of the 17 submitted questions in turn.

As the slide show played, frustrations grew among the audience.

Throughout the presentation, narrated mostly by Dyer, submitted questions were abbreviated and often disregarded in whole or part.

Key questions about water quality, including complaints about brown water and water with a strong odor, were not directly addressed.

With the crowd growing restless, Blakey and Bushweller asked Dyer to stop the slide show and let them ask questions.

Blakey asked about personal loans reportedly given to CWSWA staff for unspecified reasons and without any apparent documentation.

Dyer said there is nothing in the CWSWA bylaws that would prevent the authority from granting loans, but he refused to give any further details.

Bushweller asked the question directly: “Have you made loans to employees?”

Dyer responded: “There’s no comment.”

When the legislators asked about the authority’s refusal to turn over employee salary records when requested to do so by the public, Dyer bristled, arguing such information is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“Salary is considered personnel information, it is protected and will not be released.” He said. “All of our compensation is considered private matters.”

However, Bushweller pointed out that the authority might be on the wrong side of the FOIA law, which does require public entities to disclose what they pay their employees.

“I urge you to review that with an attorney,” he said.

When the session concluded, many in the audience were not satisfied with how Dyer and the CWSWA handled the questions submitted by the public and asked by the legislators.

“A lot of this stuff seemed like, ‘We can do what we want, we don’t to answer to this,’” said Camden resident Ken Sweeney, who brought pictures of the stains and mineral deposits left in his bathroom fixtures by CWSWA water.

“A lot of times they pass off the issues,” he said. “And I’ve got to buy their crap.”

Mary K. Eggers said some of the information presented was helpful, but the big questions about water rates and administrative policies were not addressed.

“I think some of it was runaround,” she said.

Others were hopeful that the session had brought a higher level or scrutiny to the CWSWA.

“The sewer authority in my opinion is an embarrassment,” said Hannah Mclennan, of Camden. “I think there will be more public pressure on how they’re operating.”

Bushweller and Blakey said there would likely be another similar meeting in the future to address the lingering questions.

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