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Hearing held on Utility Authority rate structure

A public hearing Thursday on a universal rate schedule discussed was scantily attended but the rate schedule was heatedly debated.

Most residents in Pearl River County can expect an increase in their sewer bills under the plan, especially if they live in the cities of Picayune and Poplarville or are serviced by Dixie Utilities.

Also on the agenda were tap fees, and other increases. Since the Utility Authority is taking over Poplarville’s sewer system, the Utility Authority is taking over the system’s debt as well. To pay for that debt, a $1.50 surcharge will be added to Poplarville residential sewer bills. Picayune is reported also to have a loan on its waste water system, but whether the Utility Authority will pay that loan has not been decided, said Utility Authority Board president Steve Lawler.

Base rates for customers under Poplarville, Picayune and Dixie Utilities sewer services now will be $16.25 for the first 4,000 gallons per month. Every additional thousand gallons of sewage treatment will have an additional charge of $2.15. To some citizens that will mean less water at a higher rate. The full tentative rate schedule was printed in the May 18 edition of the Picayune Item as a legal ad.

Lawler would not comment on whether the increase in rates was to compensate for the possibility that Picayune was operating its utility services at a loss. He did say that the fee schedule was formed from what surrounding cities had in effect. Picayune’s current rate system would not be able to provide citizens with the service they need, Lawler said.

Infrastructure in both cities is in need of repair, especially in Picayune, and Picayune does not have the money needed to make those repairs.

“The money has got to come from some place. Ultimately it’s got to come from the people who use the service,” Lawler said. “We are not trying to make a profit, we are trying to provide the service we need to provide.”

No repairs will be conducted on Picayune’s current treatment system since a new one is planned for construction.

County resident Richard Teague asked about the tap fees and what can be worked out with them. His opinion is that developers do not need to pay an individual tap fee for each unit in an apartment complex, as stated in the new rate schedule. That charge would be $400 per unit. Teague thinks those rates are unreasonable.

Lawler said the proposed rate schedule was formed by observations of other fee schedules in surrounding cities.

“Any fee by any organization, I suppose, could be deemed unreasonable,” Lawler said.

Teague contested that the fees went above and beyond any charges sustained in the installation of water and sewer lines. District III Supervisor Hudson Holliday said he built a strip mall and was charged only one tap fee for the whole building, not for each unit. County resident Wayne Gouget said he also paid only one tap fee when he constructed a three-unit residential structure. Gouget nor Holliday said whether those buildings were located in a city or the county.

With a 300 percent increase in the tap fee rates for Poplarville, from $150 to $400, Holliday expects residential backlash.

“My concern here is only one thing, is I want this thing to be successful,” Holliday said.

There also was contention about the capacity fee being another name for an impact fee. Utility Authority Engineer Brooks Wallace said the capacity fee is meant to compensate for the increased sewage capacity a new development would bring to the treatment system.

Holliday suggested ways to allow developers to do some of their own work, to avoid paying some or all of those fees.

After the public hearing, the board convened in a meeting to work out the rate schedule language and then accepted the rate schedule. It will take effect on June 1. At that time Southwest Water Inc. will be contracted by the Utility Authority to manage and operate the sewer systems in Picayune and Poplarville and water and sewer services for Dixie Utilities.