Members of the Utility Authority dropping like flies

Published 7:08 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2007

One Pearl River County Utility Authority member has had enough and is stepping down from service as public opinion of what he is doing has begun to affect his paying job.

Since the inception of the authority, about half of its original members have left its service for a number of reasons and another is planning to leave.

At the next authority meeting, scheduled for Monday, May 7, the current president, county appointee Steve Lawler, plans to make an official announcement about his intention to step down. His reason is based on the increased scrutiny he’s had to deal with and how it is affecting his paying job as president of Bank Plus.

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“I cannot allow that type of activity to affect my position here at the bank, which it was,” Lawler said.

Lawler’s stepping down is a direct result of residents’ confusion concerning his role as president of Bank Plus in Picayune and as president of the utility authority, he said. The misconception was that what he was doing as president of the authority would negatively impact his position at the bank.

“They did not draw a line between the two,” Lawler said.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Pearl River County Utility Authority concerns the fee scale. The average resident now has to pay about $300 to hook up to a waste water system. Critics say the authority does not provide a visible service. The authority has countered that the fees go towards plan evaluations and legal fees incurred in the operation of the authority. Those engineering plan evaluations ensure plans residents provide to the authority will work for years to come and will fit the regional concept of the Regional Waste Water Master Plan. Every government agency requires legal counsel, members point out.

Lawler will not be the first member to step down. Picayune appointee Scott White was the first after he moved outside the city limits of Picayune. That move made his service qualifications null and void since appointees by the City of Picayune must live inside the city, said city Public Relations Jon Myers. Another Picayune appointee, Glade Woods, stepped down after he retired from service with the City of Picayune to take a new job with Stennis Space Center, Myers said. Those two former members have been replaced with Hoppy Cole and Ernie Lavell, Myers said.

The last person to officially step down was county appointee Don Durham. He said his reason was based more on professional and personal reasons.

Initially, Durham’s boss, a Navy admiral with the Navy’s oceanography and atmospheric command at Stennis Space Center, allowed him to work on the authority’ board to help in the rebuilding process of the county, he said. Recently, however, he has been given more responsibilities at his job, which forced him to give up his work on the authority’s board because it does not pay the bills.

“I felt it was time for me to step out of that commitment,” Durham said.

Every member of the authority is a volunteer and do not get paid for the numerous hours they put in, said District II Supervisor Danny Wise.

Through all the criticism Lawler said he and the other members of the authority have been able to do some positive things in the past year. The authority’s members used money out of their own pockets to travel to surrounding counties in the state, parishes in Louisiana and counties in Tennessee to see how other utility authorities operated. That research allowed authority members to draw up a master plan, assess possible needs in this county and construct a way for the authority to be financially self sustaining. The business model created by Durham, Lawler and other initial members of the authority is making it possible for the authority to sustain itself for an extended period of time, Durham said.

Another fruit of the authority’s labor was approval for about $60 million in federal money to install new water and wastewater infrastructure in the county.

“It would appear to me that that alone would be enough to get behind (the authority) and support it,” Lawler said.

While that is a sizable sum, total cost of all the priority projects in Pearl River County are more than double what has been promised, Lawler said.

In response to the fee structure, some people have asked at various public meetings why the authority can not use the money it was awarded by the government for the new infrastructure to reduce the fees. Each penny of the $60 million has to be accounted for. Therefore the authority will be given only what it needs to complete each individual project as it is constructed.

Still, the authority meets with increasing public opposition to what it is trying to do and without much public knowledge on what the authority is actually doing. To date, the authority has held 16 public meetings, which very few members of the public attended. Lawler said he wishes more members of the public would have attended meetings during his time there. At any of the early meetings, the public could have helped shape the rules and regulations. In any future meetings, residents can still get information or give their concerns to the authority.

Lawler said he would not have had a problem with residents’ negative comments if they had first taken the time to learn what the authority is doing instead of drawing on conjecture.

Representatives of the county’s community water associations also did not show up at many meetings, even though they were invited. Lawler’s last wish before he steps down from the authority is to have representatives from each rural water association come and talk with the authority. Such a meeting would be beneficial to all involved, he said.

In his absence Lawler said he would like to the authority to be successful in finishing the projects outlined in the master plan. If those projects can be completed, he expects the county to attract more industry with more jobs and to be a better place for citizens in Pearl River County to raise their families, he said.

Replacements for Durham and Lawler have not yet been found. Wise said Durham and Lawler were selected because of their professional knowledge. Lawler has the financial know-how while Durham was able to inject his engineering knowledge. Now the board of supervisors is tasked with finding replacements of comparable skills, Wise said.

“I really appreciate their service, they have done an admirable job,” Wise said.

Both Lawler and Durham said they have no current plans to return to authority service, but if things did work out with their personal and professional lives and the criteria was right, they might consider it.

“That’s what I’ve done all my life, is be a public servant,” Durham said.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Legislature established utility authorities in five of the six coastal counties by passing the Mississippi Gulf Coast Region Utility Act, Senate Bill 2943. This act is expected to form a regional water and wastewater plan through the five utility authorities in participating counties to help establish infrastructure needed to keep water and waste water safe as populations increase and in emergency situations.

Counties where the utility authorities were established, including Pearl River County, have had to set rules and regulations and fees concerning water and wastewater collection and treatment.