Utility Authority says it needs more money for sewage operations

Published 2:11 pm Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Pearl River County Utility Authority is running out of money to operate Poplarville’s sewer system, aldermen learned during last week’s board meeting.

Steve Lawler, utility authority president, told Poplarville city leaders that while a recent audit report came back clean on the agency, it simply is not taking in enough revenue to continue operating the city’s waste water system.

Lawler said he had already met with the Picayune city council sharing similar bad news with them and requesting help. He stood before Mayor Billy Spiers and the Poplarville city aldermen asking them for their ideas as to how to make up the shortfall for day-to-day operations without raising rates.

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“We’re simply out of money,” said Lawler. “Revenues are not keeping up with expenditures.”

The mayor spoke up and said he had just gotten more bad news for the city in the form of lost sales tax revenue resulting from the closure of businesses, the largest one being the Barry Harper Dodge dealership.

“We had another $14,000 loss in sales tax revenues over this time last year,” said Spiers, who added that he expects that might get worse in this economy.

He told Lawler since they turned over the waste water department to the utility authority he doesn’t see the city as having the extra money to spend on it.

Lawler said part of the problem is that Gov. Haley Barbour pulled back $9 million already earmarked for Pearl River County. Coupled with that, he noted that when the utility authority took over the city’s waste water treatment plant, it had only been able to conduct about six months of planning on a project that realistically should have taken two years to complete.

Lawler expressed deep regret that the governor took back the $9 million the county desperately needed and hopes that somehow some of those funds can be re-allocated back to the county in the future.

He said he believes Pearl River County had done such a good job and was ahead of the game, so to speak, and had been such good stewards of the money allocated to it, that the governor took away money it needed to complete the work and reallocated it to other counties who had not progressed as quickly.

Cliff Diamond, Operations Manager for the utility authority, said the firm is receiving $16 a customer for sewer service inside the city. He said $24 is needed from every customer in Poplarville to break even.

When the city owned and operated both the water and sewer departments, city clerk Jody Stuart reminded aldermen that water rates were higher than sewer rates and supplemented operations of the waste water plant.

Operating funds are separate from the federal money being used to upgrade the infrastructure at the treatment plant.

When asked whether or not the city would be able to take back ownership of the wastewater treatment plant if the utility authority could no longer operate it, Lawler first responded negatively.

He said because of guidelines surrounding federal funds that are being used to upgrade the infrastructure, he didn’t think it would be possible for the city to take back control of the facility.

During the course of the conversation, however, Lawler conceded, “The bottom line is this. If we can’t remain solvent, you guys will have to take over it.”

Lawler said he does not want to raise rates and asked the board to think about possible solutions. One possible way, said Lawler, might be for the city to buy more water from the utility authority.

The city owns and operates two wells and purchases water for its remaining needs from the utility authority, which equates to about 6.4 million gallons per month. Last month, Lawler said the city purchased about a million gallons more than it normally uses.

He suggested the city think about purchasing more wholesale water from the utility authority to create more cash flow to help offset daily operating costs at the waste water treatment plant. In fact, he asked the city to consider buying all of its water wholesale from the authority.

“I’m not trying to make money,” said Lawler. “We’re just trying to break even.”

Lawler praised the utility authority’s board for its hard work and wanted Poplarville’s governing body to understand that no one is compensated monetarily for serving on the board.

“I have as good a board as any Pearl River County board,” he said, “and not one person has been paid one red cent — not even expenses.”

Lawler said he is hoping to go through Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, to approach Governor Barbour to try to regain some of the lost funds that would help the utility authority.

Aldermen did not agree to anything at last week’s board meeting.

John Sherman, however, said he believes the first line of action is to go to Fisher so she can approach the governor on behalf of Pearl River County.