RIVER FALLS, Ala. — The south Alabama town of River Falls is trying to sort out the mess left by a 91-year-old mayor who pleaded guilty to stealing $200,000 from the city.
Much of the task will fall to the newly appointed mayor, Patricia Gunter, who took office after longtime mayor Mary Ella Hixon pleaded guilty to theft.
Gunter lost a mayoral race to Hixon in August and in 1996. Now, it's her job to get the Covington County town of 510 people back on stable footing.
"I just really want to see the town move forward, and I feel like we have missed so many opportunities," Gunter told WAKA-TV. " And of course there's a lot to be done, a lot to figure out,"
Hixon pleaded guilty in October to stealing about $200,000 over a period of years. A man who lived with her also is charged with taking money from the city.
Gunter was appointed mayor after Hixon's plea deal vacated the office.
Authorities said the thefts left the city all but broke. Hixon, who was mayor for about three decades, avoided a prison term because of her advanced age.
Gunter said the biggest issue is getting the town's financial records in order, particularly for the water system. There were outstanding water bills totaling nearly $60,000 as of September.
"The billing has not been done on a regular basis for quite some time. Now, there was a time when bills were sent out every month but for whatever reason, that stopped happening and they were sent out quarterly or every six months or whatever and so therefore, we were losing income," Said Gunter.
River Falls resident Dennis Helmer said it's been months since he has received a water bill. He hopes the change in leadership results in a turn-around for the town.
"There are all kinds of problems here in River Falls about the sewage, the water, everything," said Helmer, who has lived there a decade. "They've got all kinds of problems and all I want them to do is send me a bill."
The town is establishing garbage service and requiring business licenses starting in January. Gunter said the town will meet with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to help address issues with the water system next week.
Police began investigating after The Andalusia Star-News reported in August about the city selling property to a middle-aged man who was living with Hixon. A sworn police statement said city money went to Hixon and her relatives; the man she lived with and his relatives; and co-workers at a development company where the mayor also worked.
Hixon will serve five years on probation, and a plea agreement required her or her estate to repay the money.