By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Aldermen voted to amend the Water Resources Management Ordinance to lower water and sewer rates for industrial customers.
The vote came at a Friday afternoon at a special twice-rescheduled meeting of the board, and followed about 30 minutes of discussion.
The amendment would return the rates for the industrial classification to the level they were before the increase aldermen approved just nine months ago in March. The rates for residential and non-profit rural water associations are not included in the proposal and will remain at the higher level.
The beneficiaries of the lowered rate will by Water Valley Poultry and BorgWarner. The original motion to lower the rate was made by Alderman Lance Clement after Phillip Tallant, poultry plant manager, addressed the city board at their regular meeting in December asking for help with the poultry processing plant’s water bill that had more than doubled from March to April.
During the pre-vote discussion, Mayor Bill Norris said that Tom Abernathy of the Mississippi Rural Water Association had done a rate study for the city and his figures showed that it cost the city 59 cents per thousand gallons just to bring the water to ground level.
When expenses are added, the cost rises to $1.36 per thousand gallons to deliver water to the customer, according to Abernathy’s research.
Mayor Norris said that he had spoken to the Attorney General’s office and was told that it was “against the state constitution to sell water for less than it cost us to produce.”
The mayor also produced a series of photographs taken by Morris Surrette, manager of the water department, which showed sewer related problems at the poultry processing facility.
In a letter accompanying the photos, Surrette expressed concerns over discharge from the poultry plant that could effect the city’s wastewater permit. He added that the city would be hard pressed to meet new requirements if the poultry plant is out of compliance on a regular basis.
Clement said, “I think we need to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be, but I also make a motion that we accept this amendment to…”
Board Attorney David Burns interrupted, “I wanted to add one thing since we got off on this. I have yet to receive from their attorney the executed sublease from when they took it over. That’s something we need to have in place pretty quickly. Actually, it needed to be in place already.”
Norris entered the discussion again and said that the reason for bringing up these issues is the costs associated with complying with new government regulations. “We’ve got three new monitors we’ve got to put in for $100,000. They’ve got to be done by December.”
“But Bill,” Clement commented, “if that plant goes out of business you are going to be in a whole lot…a whole lot worse shape than reverting back to this schedule.”
“We can’t sell for less that what it costs us,” Norris said and again commented on problems at the plant.
“I got my motion on the table,” Clement said.
Burns then explained to the aldermen that the motion would amend the ordinance for industrial users allowing water and sewer rates to go back to the old schedule.
“I don’t see how we can do that if it is going to cost us more for upkeep,” Alderman Fred White said.
“Bill, you said the attorney general told you that you cannot sell it for less than it cost you to produce it,” Burns asked.
“Right,” Norris answered.
The board continued their discussion for another few minutes on the pros and cons of lowering the rate.
Finally, the mayor called for a second.
Alderman Charlie Harris said that he didn’t know what to do. “Right now I am kind of in limbo.”
Harris asked Burns if the amendment might not be legal and Burns answered that he was concerned, based on the figures.
“The problem is this descending scale,” Burns said. “As Morris (Surrette) has pointed out, those who tax the system the most pay the least for the water.”
“Maybe there is some sort of middle-ground in terms of a reduction that doesn’t go back to that descending scale,” he continued.
After another brief discussion, Harris seconded the motion.
When the mayor called for a vote, the aldermen were polled individually in a roll call vote. Clement and Harris voted for the motion and White voted against.
“The amendment – because it is not a unanimous vote – will not take affect for thirty days,” Burns said and added if the aldermen would like for him to look into the legalities, he would.
“I would.” White said.
After the issue first surfaced in December, both Mayor Norris and Water Department Manager Surrette expressed concern that the old rates were too low and did not cover costs.
Eventually, the mayor said, someone is going to have to pay for revamping the system and meeting new government regulations. He added that the entire burden could fall on the residential customers and the water associations if the industrial customers aren’t paying their fair share.