Concerns and ‘misinformation’ about Utility Authority addressed at town meeting

Published 6:50 pm Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Since the implementation of county-wide building codes and the Pearl River County Utility Authority, misconceptions have been flying around the county, causing people to oppose the change and the prosperity it promises to bring, say supporters of the changes.

To address those concerns, members of the Pearl River County Utility Authority, county employees in the building code division and members of the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors held a town meeting at Pearl River Central High School cafeteria Monday evening.

“We’re just trying to get a grip on the changes in the county,” said board president Bettye Stockstill.

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Stockstill organized the meeting after rumors circulated around the county and caused confusion on what the implementation of building codes and the authority’s rules and regulations aim to accomplish. Many residents, including builders, attended the meeting to air their concerns.

At the meeting building code officials and the utility authority members listed several facts:

— Implementation of building codes was advertised in the paper.

— The county could not opt out of the authority’s implementation.

— The building codes could have been opted out of in 60 days.

— The authority could apply for loans to help pay for their administrative costs but not until they have revenue to back it up.

— If a resident was in a home before the utility authority was formed and plans to live there until they die, they will never deal with the authority.

— The authority will not take over community water providers.

— The health department does not conduct percolation tests. It conducts soil evaluations.

— Authority administrative costs must be paid for because the authority is a government institution and therefore cannot incur debt.

— The authority has one law firm, not two, working for it.

— The $100,000 mentioned at previous meeting is utility authority expenses accumulated since inception, not debt.

The authority’s fees are used to pay for professional services, Utility Authority president Steve Lawler said. In order to ensure the county will move in a positive direction, professional services must be usd by the authority, and those services don’t come cheap. The authority asked local governments to help fund the initial phase of the authority, but those governments also were strapped for funds so a fee structure was developed. That fee structure has undergone many changes, beginning at more than $1,000 and ending up at about $300. Lawler said the fees may go up or down, based on administrative costs in the future.

Still, residents expressed discontent with the idea of increased government control.

“I feel like I live in a dictatorship,” said Ray Holmes. “I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do with my property.”

Changes to both the building codes and the utility authority rules and regulations have been happening progressively since their implementation to make the rules and regulations fit this county. Lawler said one change was the limit on lot sizes for homes with a well, a well and septic tank and just a septic tank. Even those regulations can be re-evaluated and adjusted, if the land owner has a percolation test to determine if the soil will properly dispose of waste water.

Concerning the building codes, many people are upset the county is telling them how to build a home or other building while charging a fee for the inspection.

“What business is it of the county how my building is built,” Brad Holliday said.

Utility Authority board member Ike Lewis said in order to provide solid buildings, they must conform to those codes and someone needs to conduct an inspection. That inspection does not come free so those inspectors have to be paid for their services, Lewis said.

Only one person not associated with the county in some way stood up for the building codes, Charles Lee. While he will admit that he is not thrilled about the increased costs, those codes ensure a quality product across the board. The codes will help to keep project bids on the same level, weeding out less than reputable builders.

“I love it when an inspector tells me I did a good job,” Lee said.

Lawler said as part of the implementation of the Utility Authority the legislature is setting aside about $60 million for Pearl River County. This money will be used to install new water, waste water and storm water infrastructure in the county. It cannot be used to fix old infrastructure, Lawler said. Soon $2 million of that money will be used to install the new well and water storage tank in the Poplarville area.

None of that money can be used to pay for administrative costs. That money will act as a spring board to get the infrastructure up and going and it includes a new waste water treatment facility for the City of Picayune, Lawler said.

Other county problems to be remedied include Dixie Utilities’ sub par infrastructure, which Picayune has agreed to take over. Lawler said that the infrastructure in that service area is currently dumping raw sewage into the local waterways, which eventually flows to the Gulf of Mexico.

While the authority does not appear to have to answer to any local government, they can be replaced just as easily as they were appointed. County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said local governments appointed members to the authority. Four of those members were appointed by the board of supervisors, two by the city of Picayune and one by the city of Poplarville, he said. If at any time the local governments are unhappy with the operations of the authority, those members can be replaced. While authority members can be replaced the authority can not be disbanded, Lumpkin said.

Pearl River County may appear to just be getting off the ground with the authority but they are actually ahead of the game for the region, Lawler said. The county is so far ahead some of the other five counties are planning on using Pearl River County’s plan as a template for their own, he said.