City seeks guarantees before committing to Authority

Published 5:53 pm Thursday, December 7, 2006

Mayor Billy Spiers and the Poplarville city board had a lengthy discussion Tuesday night with a representative of the newly-formed Pearl River County Utility Authority in hopes of getting a clearer understanding of the role of their proposed partnership and the realistic benefits of such a venture.

Mike Caples is the legal counsel of the Pearl River County authority, which is under the umbrella of the Gulf Coast Regional Utility Authority formed following Hurricane Katrina.

Caples spent about an hour with the mayor and aldermen discussing the issue of turning the city’s water and sewer system over to the county authority for a January-September 2007 trial period. During that time, the authority would assume ownership of the city’s system and would contract back to the city to manage the system using the current staff as contract operators.

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At the conclusion of the nine months, the city would then have the option of fully turning the system over to the authority or taking it back under the city’s control. If, during that time, the authority assumed any debt regarding the water system, the city would then assume that debt.

Caples, however, said if the need were to ever arise that would cause the Authority to borrow money to make any needed repairs to the city’s system, they would do so at the lowest possible rates, just as the city does. He also told the board that the authority is in a much better position than the city for getting needed funds.

Caples assured the city board there would be no rate increases without the mutual agreement of the city and the county authority during that nine-month transition period. If Poplarville chooses to proceed with the authority, $2 million in emergency funds will be available before the end of this month for adding a new well and water tank, Caples said. Site of the new well and tower would be at the north end of town at the old jail site on Oak Hill Road, in addition to another tank and well at Hillsdale. The two systems would be connected by a 12-inch line and to immediately support the growth of the entire north Pearl River County area.

The city has been trying to get funds to solve its water woes for the past four years and has only met with failure up to this point, even after several trips to Washington asking for help. In addition, in the spring of this year, the health department placed a moratorium on adding new water taps to the system because it was operating at peak capacity.

That act has greatly inhibited growth in the city during a period of time when the county has been experiencing unprecedented growth, city officials say.

Caples said the Pearl River County authority passed a resolution Monday night for a proposal asking the city of Poplarville to hand over its water and sewer system to the authority. Spiers was not willing to do so without having some sort of proposal in writing from the county authority.

“The problem is,” said Spiers, “the board doesn’t know which way to go. They don’t have anything in writing.”

Caples understood the mayor’s point but told the board he did not want to spend the amount of time involved in having his board draft a lengthy proposal without first having at least some positive feedback from Poplarville that it is wanting to move forward with the agreement.

Spiers told Caples he wanted the board to speak privately with the city’s engineer, along with the city superintendent and city clerk to get their input about proceeding before he would give him an answer to draft the proposal.

Spiers is concerned about the future of his own employees, fearful they might no longer have a job in October of next year if the city turned control of the system entirely over to the authority, or that employees would lose benefits from years of working with the city if they went to work for the authority.

Caples assured Spiers that the Authority is a state government agency and that employees could retain the same level of benefits as they have working with the city if they became employees of the authority. He also said as the Sept. 30 deadline approaches, the authority and the city would sit down and determine which employees the city would like to retain and which the authority would like to have.

Alderman John Grant expressed concern that the authority currently has no employees and no track record by which it can be judged for him to feel comfortable at this time to turn over the city’s system.

Alderman Bill Winborn expressed full support for turning the system over. He said Caples has been legal counsel for the DeSoto County utility authority and has proven experience with that county and the immense growth it has been experiencing.

Caples indicated that if the money is available this month, the possibility of actually beginning construction on the well and tank project could begin this spring. And with the authority as owner of the water system, with the promise of the tank and well on the way, it is possible the health department could issue a few more permits for new homes to tap into the city’s water supply, Caples said.

Following the meeting with Caples, the board went into executive session to meet with Don Walker, the city’s engineer. Following that closed session, the board authorized Walker to speak with Caples this week about moving the proposed well site from the old jail to the city’s industrial park on Highway 53.

Spiers said if the authority places the well and tank on Oak Hill Road as they are proposing, they will have to run lines down Highway 11 to tie into the city. The mayor also said fire protection would be somewhat inhibited if the tank and well were built at the Oak Hill Road site.

“That will still put us at around 18 months before we could get any additional water,” said Spiers.

If the authority will agree to put the tank and well at the city’s proposed site at the industrial park, Spiers said Poplarville could have its needed water in as little as eight months.