Council accounts for vacancies

Published 4:04 pm Thursday, January 19, 2012

Property owners with buildings containing more than one unit served by just one water meter can now have their rates adjusted for vacancies.

Charging all units separately for water usage will continue. During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, City Attorney Nathan Farmer said a change to the ordinance will allow property owners to report and receive credit for vacancies.

After the council made changes to the city’s utility rate ordinance last year, some property owners objected. Some of those who objected filed suit against the city under the name Citizens for Fair Utility Rates. At the time they changed the ordinance to charge each unit in a multi-unit property separately, city officials said the changes were made to ensure all property owners were paying their fair share for utility usage. The suit was filed in the Chancery Court, which sent the matter back to the city council so the two parties could have a chance to resolve the issue after first holding a hearing. The hearing was held in December.

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Representatives with Citizens for Fair Utility Rates pleaded with the council during the hearing that they not be charged for utility use in unoccupied units and to reverse the portion of the ordinance that charged each unit in a multi-unit building as a separate entity. Farmer said during Tuesday’s meeting that while this change to the ordinance will allow reporting of and adjustment for vacancies, charging each unit separately will remain in effect.

Farmer said affected business or property owners can report vacancies before or on the 20th of every month by filing a vacancy report. Farmer said the ordinance states the Public Works Director has the authority to investigate vacancy reports for accuracy and penalties will be levied for discrepancies.

The council approved amending the ordinance.

Public Works Director Eric Morris provided the council with an update concerning city natural gas system improvements. Currently, the system suffers from a 32 percent rate of unaccounted natural gas usage or leakage. Morris said attempts to rectify that problem include finding and repairing leaks in the system, using abandoned master meters in the city to conduct checks and balances, and investigating for service that is not being metered. Morris said of the 97 grade two leaks identified within the city, only 17 have not been repaired. All of the grade one leaks, which are the most dangerous, have been repaired. Grade two leaks are not considered hazardous, but do require repair, according to Internet sources.

Morris said about half of the apparent unaccounted natural gas use may be attributed to discrepancies in the billing system, and he has hired a consultant to help fix that problem.

Fire Chief Keith Brown asked the council to approve applying for a $10,000 Homeland Security grant to purchase four or five portable 700 MHz radios that are compatible with the state-wide emergency radio system. Deputies with the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department already are using the state-wide digital communication system. Brown said having a handful of the radios in the city will give emergency responders six methods of communication during emergencies, such as those on the scale of Hurricane Katrina when all of South Mississippi suffered problems with communications, especially outside of their local area. The council approved applying for the grant.

Special Projects Manager Tommy Dyle addressed the council about applying for a grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to make improvements along local highways. Dyle said the grant, which would require a 20 percent match that could cost the city up to $40,000, would be used to install decorative lighting and signs in key areas of the city. Council member Larry Breland asked City Clerk Amber Hinton if the city could afford such an expense. Hinton said the city could afford the expense. The council approved applying for the grant.

Former Picayune School Board member Reese Moody addressed the council to protest its recent appointment of Frank Feeley to the school board. Moody said he spoke to school board members who said they did not ask the council to make an appointment to the seat left vacant by Tony Smith when he moved to his new position in the State Senate. While Moody admitted he was seeking the school board position in the upcoming election, he said he questions the council’s motive for appointing someone to that board prior to the election on March 3. Two council members, Jason Todd Lane and Wayne Gouguet, had voted against the appointment.

In other business the council:

— Approved allowing City Manager Jim Luke to travel to Jackson to attend the MML mid-winter legislative conference Jan. 24-26.

— Approved an amendment to the settlement agreement with the Foundation for Civic Development concerning transfer of ownership of the Centraplex. Farmer said the transfer is nearing completion.

The next regular council meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. February 7.