Council holds hearing on water rates

Published 3:58 pm Thursday, December 8, 2011

The debate over whether the newly implemented utility rate ordinance creates excessive fees continued during a public hearing Tuesday night at the Picayune City Council meeting.

The council held the hearing, ordered by Chancery Court, to hear arguments from business owners who are part of a suit against the city by Citizens for Fair Utility Rates LLC.

Some of the business owners at the meeting ask that council members reconsider the ordinance mandating any structure with multiple units served by one water meter be charged for minimum usage for each unit and charge only for the meter installed.

Attorney Chris Shaw, who  represents the plaintiffs in Citizens for Fair Utility Rates LLC., said the charges required by the ordinance have caused each business owner to suffer financial stress from higher utility bills. Shaw cited examples such as Arbor Gate, an apartment complex that has about 120 units. Before the new ordinance was passed, the owners of the complex paid a monthly charge of about $2,000 for about 424,000 gallons of water. With the new ordinance, Shaw said a monthly bill for about 543,000 gallons of water totaled $5,597. Shaw said the yearly bill for water at Arbor Gate increased by an additional $43,000 since the ordinance passed.

Another contention  is that the city has been charging business owners for usage in units that were vacant and were not charging the same rates to hotels or motels, Shaw said. Shaw said since Arbor Gate offers monthly rates, their complex is not being treated the same as a hotel or motel.

Cindy Aime, a representative for the owners of Arbor Gate, said the increased utility rates have caused the complex to operate in the red and lose money for the owners. Aime said she expects the owners to pass on the expense to residents to make the complex profitable  next year.

Shaw said on average there are between 14 and 20 vacancies at Arbor Gate that the city bills for minimum usage.

What the Citizens for Fair Utility Rates would like the council to do is go back to billing for minimum usage on one meter, bill all businesses equally and cease billing for vacant units.

“I just don’t think you can charge for something without commensurate services,” Shaw said about charging for vacancies.

The council took the presentation by Shaw and the other representatives in the suit who spoke on their own behalf, and moved to enter executive session to discuss the matter. A decision on the outcome of the executive session was  not immediately available.

In other business the council approved selling a piece of property on North Lewis Street to Beverly Gray for $8,500, with the funds restricted to the Westside Development Fund.

Council member Wayne Gouguet asked about the status of the transfer of the Centraplex. City Attorney Nathan Farmer said the process is moving slowly, and he has recently consulted the District Attorney and Attorney General’s offices as required by state law when transferring public property.

Council member Larry Breland asked Police Chief Bryan Dawsey if he could increase patrols along Rosa and Brookdale Streets to catch speeders and vehicles violating the noise ordinance. Dawsey said he plans to increase patrols in those areas.

Breland also asked how the investigation into recent home invasions was going. Dawsey said investigators are working with the Wiggins Police Department, who recently  arrested some suspects on similar charges, to see if those suspects are responsible for the crimes in Picayune.

City resident George Janet asked the council to consider using the money from the sale of the current city hall on Beech Street and the insurance money from the Centraplex fire to hire two more police officers, instead of demolishing the A.L. Franklin Annex building to expand the historic city hall. Janet said that in light of the two most recent home invasions and the exchange of gunfire at Ben Taylor Park on Nov. 20, he would rather feel safe at night than sit in a new city building.

The council also approved setting Dec. 30 and Jan. 2 as paid holidays for city employees to observe New Year’s Day, as proclaimed by Gov. Haley Barbour for state employees.

The next regular meeting of the council is at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20.