Meetings continue about future of Picayune wastewater treatment

Published 6:13 pm Thursday, December 13, 2007

Discussions about the future of Picayune’s wastewater treatment continued Wednesday night in the fourth of five meetings held at City Hall in Picayune.

The main topic of discussion was the choice between the city allowing the Pearl River County Utility Authority to take over Picayune’s wastewater treatment and build a new treatment plant or building a new treatment plant itself and passing a bond issue to pay for the new facility.

“The Utility Authority currently has a $28 million dollar grant from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality… When the authority was formed, there were two priorities. The first priority was water in Poplarville, which they are working on. The second priority was the wastewater treatment here in Picayune… They are proposing a 1.6 million gallon plant,” said City Manager Ed Pinero.

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“Our other option is to pass a bond issue for approximately $30 million and installing a system ourself… The city is looking at options between a lagoon and a mechanical system, but DEQ and the EPA aare discouraging the use of lagoons… They are trying to phase out lagoons,” Pinero said.

“If the city passes the bond issue, taxes would probably be slightly more than twice what they are now. Our current millage rate is 25.5… If the bond issue passes, the millage rate would be approximately 27.85 added to the current rate of 25.5,” Pinero said.

“For example, if you have an $80,000 house, and you currently pay $1,200 in taxes on that house, then if the bond issue passes, your taxes would then probably be slightly over $2,400 on that same house,” said City of Picayune Public Relations Director Jon Myers.

Pinero said the option to allow the Utility Authority to assume control of wastewater treatment in the city has its downsides also.

“The biggest downside to going with the Utility Authority would be that the city would no longer have any control over wastewater. … The city names two members to the Utility Authority, but those are just two members in a group of seven. The city can change the members if we need to, but control of wastewater would still be ultimately up to the Utility Authority,” Pinero said.

Several citizens expressed concerns about possible rate increases, and how both options would affect the sewer bills.

“At this time, we have not figured how the millage increase would affect rates, if at all. All the bond issue would pay for would be to put in the facility and trunk line. It wouldn’t include maintenance, operation, or anything else of that nature,” Pinero said. “As for the Utility Authority’s rates, we don’t know what their rates will be. We need to sit down with the authority and start talks about this … but grants have saved city taxpayers a great deal of money in the past. It’s possible if we do this with grant money, we may be able to get by without a (significant) rate increase.”

Chad Frierson, Picayune Public Works Director, said that plans for a new wastewater treatment facility have been in the works since 2005.

“We have needed this for years. When Katrina hit, it got kind of set aside, but we’ve been looking at the problem since before then,” Frierson said.

Some citizens asked if there are any other counties in the state that could be used as examples to see how allowing the Utility Authority to take over would work.

“Harrison County and DeSoto County already have utility authorities. We have looked at DeSoto County. Harrison is just getting started, but they are getting rid of their lagoon systems and going completely mechanical… There are few examples in Mississippi, but the ones we have are quite positive,” Pinero said.

Pinero said a decision should be made about a deal with the utility authority by the first of next year.

“We need some kind of commitment either way by January… We are under mandate to have started something significant by the year 2010. We have been called to Jackson to meet with DEQ, so we have to do something,” Pinero said. “And it has to be a new facility. We can’t take the current facility and do anything with that because of the superfund site we have here, and creosote has gotten into that site.”

After the meeting, Myers said the questions have pretty much been about the cost increase of a new facility, whether it be a rate increase or a tax increase, and why the city has to turn over complete control if the Utility Authority takes over the system.

“They’ve been good meetings, though. There has been a lot of information gathered on the city’s side and on the citizen’s side,” Myers said.

“People have asked us some good questions. They’ve asked questions we probably never would have thought of ourselves… And the exchange of information has been beneficial to everyone,” Pinero said.

Picayune City Councilman Donald Parker said he has appreciated city interest and turnout at the meetings.

“The people have been wonderful and the meetings have been fruitful. The input will give the Mayor, City Manager and City Council the information they need to continue in their efforts to come up with a plan that will benefit the city of Picayune,” Parker said.

Myers said there will be one more meeting, at 6 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

“We’re giving the people what we have. If we don’t kow, we’ll find out and get back to them,” Myers said.