Picayune sewer rate increase is from Utility Authority

Published 4:15 pm Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Utility Authority manager Cliff Diamond’s comments concerning the use of Picayune sewer rates before the Poplarville Board of Aldermen has Picayune city employees puzzled and a little angry.

The question for city clerk Priscilla Daniel and assistant Amber Hinton is why did Picayune have to increase its rates if what Picayune rate payers were paying was helping to support the Poplarville system, and this was happening back when the Utility Authority was complaining that Picayune’s rates were too low to support its sewage system.

Another question is, would Picayune’s rates have been raised as much as they were if the money taken from Picayune rate payers had been used strictly to support the costs of the Picayune sewer system. Neither Daniel nor Hinton had an answer.

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Daniel said that over the past few days, Picayune city employees have been taking a lot of phone calls, some of them angry, from citizens upset over the essential doubling of Picayune’s sewer rates.

“We just collect the money. The city didn’t raise the rates,” Daniel said.

She makes the point that the city simply collects the money and passes it on to the Utility Authority and doesn’t charge a fee for that service, a fee that probably would be billed back to Picayune rate payers by the Utility Authority.

Still, city employees take the phone calls, and what angers Daniel, though she wouldn’t say so and only very calmly pointed out that many of those calls have been directed to the city by the Utility Authority. She knows this because the caller tells her, or whomever takes a particular call, that the caller was told by the Utility Authority to call the city.

Her question is why are the calls directed to the city when the Utility Authority developed all the figures it used to justify the rate increase.

Daniel is somewhat puzzled by something else having to do with the rate increase as well. The Utility Authority has been saying that sewage rates are going up because the city kept the water system and money made there could be used to support the sewage system.

No, says Daniel. The water system, the sewer system and the natural gas system are what are called “enterprises” and each is supposed to be accounted separately.

The rates for water are supposed to be used only to support the water system, and Picayune’s water system needs a lot of work.

“We have gotten that under control and now any money being made there is going back into the system” to make badly needed repairs and for other water infrastructure needs, Daniel said.

Similarly, the rates paid for sewage are supposed to support that system and the rates paid for natural gas are supposed to support that system, she said.

She noted that at one point the Utility Authority had discussed trying to give the sewage infrastructure back to the city and for the Utility Authority to handle only treatment of the sewage. If the city had to pay all the costs associated with the infrastructure, what would be paid to the Utility Authority for treatment would amount to “pure profit” for the agency since it would not have to pay for maintenance and repair of the infrastructure.

Daniel and Hinton said the new rate does include the costs of operating both the old sewage system and the new one that is being built and which should come on line early next year.

The new system is being built to handle sewage from Picayune residents, people who live in the area covered by the old Dixie Utilities and Hide-A-Way Lake, the infrastructure for which is now being installed.

The two women said they don’t have a comparison of what it costs to operate the old system and what is needed for the new system because the city’s old accounting software and its new accounting software don’t yet talk to each other, though the city is in the process of correcting that problem. However, they noted that when the new system comes on line, the old one still will be in use at least for “surge” to help handle rain water that flows into the system.

Daniel said city employees are as frustrated by the rate increase as anyone else because they are having to pay higher bills as well. However, she said he hopes the rate won’t increase again anytime soon because she the Utility Authority should have made this rate increase with future needs in mind.

Daniel emphasized that she hopes the Utility Authority succeeds in spite of all the problems it is currently causing Picayune and Poplarville because the original concept, of corralling and treating waste that is now escaping from failing septic systems and polluting  streams, lakes and ponds and potentially ground water from which drinking water is drawn, has merit.