Utility Authority receives $500,000 grant from MDEQ, suspends collection of fees

Published 5:14 pm Friday, January 4, 2008

The Pearl River County Utility Authority voted to suspend its fees after it was notified they had been awarded an additional $500,000 grant for administrative costs from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality

The notification came at the authority’s meeting Thursday night and and members then voted to suspend collecting fees, including the $300 residential construction permit review fee and the $2,000 commercial site development review fee.

Trudy Fisher, a representative from MDEQ, said the grant came as a result from lobbying of the governor’s office by local county officials, utility authority members and area state representatives.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“The governor’s office has heard your pleas … . It was made more and more clear to us that you (the authority) don’t have the money to run the entity it needs to be run and the way you want it to be run,” Fisher said. “It is the intent and hope of the agency that the money will be used to support in such a way that some of the fees can be defrayed. We hope it will benefit the authority and the county.”

Utility Authority President Steve Lawler said the additional funding would be used strictly for administrative costs, such as placing staff members, setting up an office and advertising for the authority.

Fisher said the half-million dollar grant is a one-time grant, but that MDEQ will continue to help the county look for additional funding.

“This grant should be considered non-recurring. However, we will continue to work with the authority and with local elected officials to locate additional administrative funds as needed,” Fisher said.

After the announcement was made, Lawler asked the board if there were any recommendations regarding the fee situation.

“We always said if we could figure out another way to fund ourselves, we would do away with the fees,” Lawler said.

Board member Ike Lewis asked what the situation would be for county residents who have already been charged the fees in the past.

“How will (getting rid of the fees) work with those who have paid fees already?” Lewis asked.

“Once the fee is instituted, it is a valid and legal obligation. You can change that law, but the change will not be retroactive and fees will not be refunded. Fees that have already been collected over a valid ordinance, and to give it back would be a donation,” said board attorney Jeffrey Hollimon.

Board attorney Michael Caples agreed.

“(The utility authority) is a state agency. Once the fee has been collected, it becomes money of the state and can’t be returned or refunded. But we can forego fees from now and forward,” Caples said.

Lewis still expressed concern about citizens that may feel they are entitled to a refund of their monies.

“Is there any way to explain we are not the bad guys in this?” Lewis asked.

Lawler called the dilemma a “no-win situation” and said the elimination of the fees would be good for the county.

“Not everyone sees it that way, but it is good. I think we really have to consider this. We have lobbied really hard for it. Our elected officials have supported it. This can eliminate a lot of our problems,” Lawler said.

After some more discussion, the board voted unanimously to suspend the fees.

Also, the board heard from Lewis about a complaint from JoAnn Flous, who had approached the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors a couple of weeks ago.

Authority engineer Brooks Wallace, of Dungan Engineering, said Flous wanted to put a septic tank on a one and one-half acre piece of property she had recently purchased and on which she placed a mobile home. Wallace said Flous had gotten a recommendation about a septic system from the health department, but that according to authority rules, she needed a recommendation from an engineer as to the type of system needed.

Lewis said that from his understanding, the health department recommendations were not up to the standards required by the utility authority.

Hollimon said one reason that Flous is required to get an engineer’s opinion is because her property is in a flood zone.

“An engineer designed system is only required in flood zone areas. You have to have those in a flood zone. Outside of flood zone, a perk test is required. That test can be performed by anyone with health department training, including health department employees, if they will go do it. We’re not requiring to go to an engineer unless they are in a flood zone,” Hollimon said.

Board member Joel Pigott said he was leery of deviating from the authority’s requirements without extensive research and further discussions.

Board member Tommy Breland said he wanted to sit down with the health department and find out their recommendations, and Lawler agreed.

“That meeting (with the health department) needs to take place, and then we need to make a decision for the greater good of public health. I don’t see making any sort of decision without more information,” Lawler said.

The board agreed to table the issue until the tech committee could obtain more information on the situation.

Emily Dedeaux asked the authority for assistance in dealing with the Pearl River Central Water Association and obtaining water through that association for her property. Dedeaux provided a map showing her property was near the border between the authority’s area and the PRCWA area, but that her property was located within the PRCWA’s certificated area.

“I live three-tenths of a mile from the end of their hookup. I’ve been told it would cost around $5,000 per household for them to extend their lines… . I currently have a well, but my water is not clear. It hasn’t been clear for a while,” Dedeaux said.

Lawler said that while the authority has no jurisdiction over the PRCWA, he would set up a meeting to talk with them and see what arrangement could be reached.

“I don’t promise anything, but I will see if we can sit down with them and see if we can do anything to assist in getting water to your house. They are their own area, however, and I can’t commit for them,” Lawler said.

In other business, the board:

— Approved minutes for December 4, 2007 meeting.

— Approved cash receipts and disbursements.

— Approved January docket.

— Approved invoices for Phoenix Fabricator and Erectors, Hemphill Construction Co., and Sample and Associates.

— Approved agreement with Denton Advertising to provide advertising and web hosting for the authority.