The Town of Gordon is a small community located in Southeast Alabama, nestled in the most southern point of Houston County. The northern border of the town meets the Georgia state line at the beautiful Chattahoochee River. The southern border for the Town of Gordon is just 11 miles north to the Alabama/Florida state line. The town was first established as a trading post on the Chattahoochee River and became a major port in 1928 when the steamboats traveled the river carrying cotton to the markets and bringing products to local merchants. The Town of Gordon was incorporated in 1872.

The town has drinking water and wastewater facilities. The drinking water system is a groundwater system that consists of one well and one storage tank. The town serves approximately 138 water connections. The wastewater system consists of collection lines, lift stations and a lagoon. The town has around 127 connections on the wastewater system.

The town is full of large trees, beautiful old churches, and warm-hearted citizens; though small in size, this community has faced considerable obstacles in recent years. In 2016, a new mayor was elected. Then in 2017, he was charged with voter fraud and theft of the town’s property. He was convicted of voter fraud and officially removed from office in January 2019. Also, the town clerk appointed in 2017 is being investigated due to irregularities identified by the Gordon Town Council in 2018.

In October 2018, amid all this internal turmoil, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle near Panama City, Florida, as a Category 5 storm. Michael then traveled north to the Town of Gordon, where it left a path of destruction. The powerful winds of the hurricane blew down trees, damaged homes, blocked roads, and knocked down power lines. Homes and municipal facilities were severely damaged. With the lack of leadership from the mayor’s office, the emergency response and recovery efforts were delayed. The Town of Gordon was left physically damaged and financially distressed by both manmade and natural disasters.

In January 2019, the Council appointed a new mayor, Shana Ray. She is committed to serving the residents of the Town of Gordon. Her goal is to correct the issues created by the past administration and improve the town’s financial condition. Though the new administration is committed to making improvements, the mayor, council, and town clerk face a proverbial mountain that includes compliance issues and a dire financial position.

Communities Unlimited (CU) contacted the Town of Gordon at the request of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and U.S. Department of Agriculture – Rural Development (USDA-RD). CU first met with the mayor and town clerk in April 2019. The town was behind in completing and submitting drinking water and wastewater compliance reports, and they were delinquent with their annual payment on their USDA-RD wastewater loan.

The mayor and the town clerk had limited experience and even less training in the drinking water and wastewater field. They needed to learn about their systems, then learn about how to support them and maintain them physically and financially. CU completed a rate analysis on the drinking water and the wastewater departments and presented it to the mayor, council, and residents of the Town of Gordon. The results showed the town needed to increase rates for both the water and wastewater systems in order to sustain them. The council approved the rate increase for both utility systems as it was presented. The rate adjustment should significantly improve the financial position of the drinking water and wastewater departments. The additional revenue that will be generated from the adjusted rate structures will allow funds for badly needed maintenance while still allowing for adequate cash flow to cover the annual loan repayment required by the USDA-RD wastewater loan agreement. To improve financial monitoring and reporting, the Town of Gordon purchased QuickBooks in February 2019. The town clerk did not have any training on the program and was trying to learn the program as she used it.

When this issue was presented to CU, staff members from CU who were trained and familiar with QuickBooks began training the town clerk. The training sessions began in July and are still ongoing. Communities Unlimited scheduled a training session every 2-3 weeks as the clerk’s schedule allowed. While training the clerk on QuickBooks, Communities Unlimited staff also trained town employees on financial record keeping and basic accounting, such as expenses, revenue and assets and how they appear on reports that should be generated monthly or annually as needed. To improve financial reporting and accounts receivable collections, CU staff, along with the mayor and town clerk, worked with the utility billing programmer to get forms generated by the billing program changed to a more userfriendly format. This change now allows the town to generate a detailed receivables report.

With some training and guidance, this report will enable the town to monitor delinquent accounts monthly and notify customers of past due accounts and pending disconnection of their water and wastewater service. Before the change, the accounts receivables report generated by the billing program was not easy to decipher. Therefore, it was not used as a tool for monitoring delinquent accounts. Staff from Communities Unlimited and the town clerk recently spent several hours working together to prepare disconnect notices for almost 50 customers.

In a recent call with Mayor Ray, she informed CU that she has been receiving calls from people that received a notification. The mayor recognized how important collecting money due to the town is to the financial health of the water and wastewater systems, and she thanked Communities Unlimited and said, “You go beyond the call of duty to help the town.” Though the Town of Gordon Water Department and Wastewater Department still face compliance issues directly related to sewer overflows and not meeting permit limits, the town’s administration is steadily working with Communities Unlimited to resolve those issues. The town is in the process of applying for a Special Evaluation Assistance for Rural Communities and Households (SEARCH) Grant from USDA-RD and has already applied for the funding from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. The SEARCH Grant will be used to offset the cost of engineering for the needed improvements to the wastewater system, while a large portion of the CDBG funding will be used to make improvements to the wastewater system. This combination should resolve many of their compliance issues.

If funded, some of the CDBG funds will be used for replacing old water meters and repairing or replacing old water lines that frequently have leaks. The leaks drive up water loss and run up the cost of operations. The mayor and council’s willingness to adjust the water and wastewater rates, implement the new rates and to diligently work on collecting past due accounts will go a long way in stabilizing the finances of the water and wastewater systems. Communities Unlimited will continue to provide training on financial reporting, monitoring, and record-keeping, along with QuickBooks training and guidance.

Dinah Foreman

Communities Unlimited
Alabama State Coordinator