By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Aldermen have voted to override a veto by Mayor Bill Norris of their amendment to an amendment that will lower water rates for industrial customers.
The vote came at the end of the regular first Tuesday meeting Feb. 3. The agenda item “Mayor Veto” was added right before 5 p.m., less than two hours before the 6:30 start time.
Alderman Lance Clement, who made the original motion to return to the old rates, motioned to override the veto.
“I’d like to make a motion that we override the mayor’s veto on the water and sewer rates for industrial customers that we passed at our January meeting,” Clement said.
Alderman Charlie Harris followed Clement immediately with a second.
Mayor Norris asked if there were any questions or discussion and got no response.
As all four of the aldermen present raised their hands to vote, Clement said Alderman Tommy Swearengen had contacted him and said he would vote by phone. Swearengen was in the hospital in Oxford at the time.
Board Attorney David Burns turned to Alderman Fred White, who had originally voted against the measure, and said, “Fred, you had asked me to look into this. I have some concerns about the rate structure from a constitutional perspective as well as a statutory perspective.”
“There’s a statue prohibiting donations as well as free service,” Burns added and said that there had not been time since the last meeting to get a formal opinion from the Attorney General’s office.
Burns went on to explain that he had spoken to a staff attorney in the AG’s office and the concerns over whether or not the rate structure was permissible under state law were expressed to him.
Alderman Sherry Martin asked, ”What you are saying is that we can’t have a different rate for industrial?”
“No,” Burns said. “I’m saying, according to the information Bill (Mayor Bill Norris) obtained from Tom Abernathy of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, the cost that would be charged to industry pursuant to the rate schedule does not cover the cost of producing the water.”
Alderman Charlie Harris said,” The biggest thing that I am concerned about is if we don’t do something like this there is a chance we can loose some business for the city and job losses.”
The mayor said that he had talked with an official of Global Food Innovations, Inc., parent company of Water Valley Poultry, LLC. Norris said that he was told the company planned to expand on the already $4 million investment in the Water Valley facility.
“He didn’t say anything about closing shop,” Norris said.
The mayor added that he had expressed his concerns at the previous meeting and he was willing to work out some sort of compromise on the rates.
Referring to earlier comments by Burns, White asked, “In other words, the attorney general says it is illegal?”
Burns explained that the attorney general’s office can’t render an opinion over the telephone and the process to get an official opinion would take about 30 days.
Clement then said, “I think there is some question to about the numbers we are coming up with on this. I know that Bill gave us something last month that said a dollar sixty-two. And then in the paper – I guess you gave the information to the paper – It was like a dollar thirty.”
The numbers to which Clement refers are from a rate study done by Tom Abernathy of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, a recognized authority for water rate studies in the state.
Abernathy’s figures show that based on operating expenses it cost the city $.59 per thousand gallons just to bring the water to ground level. The cost rises to $1.36 per thousand gallons to deliver water to the customer. When future expenses are added, including depreciation of wells and tanks, the figure is $1.62 per thousand gallons.
“Let me ask you something,” questioned Alderman Sherry Martin. “Suppose Water Valley Poultry closes down and we don’t get anything. BorgWarner closes down and we don’t get anything. How many people are we going to lay off? Is our operating expense going down?”
After five more minutes of discussion between the mayor and aldermen about operating costs versus the possibility of losing industry, White suggested, “Why don’t we just leave it like it is and look at it one year from today and see where we are at.”
Aldermen didn’t address residential customers or the rural water associations, who will continue to pay the higher rates.
Among other actions the Board of Aldermen:
• Voted to pay Burns Law Firm $2531.40. While board members looked over the invoice, Burns commented on several ongoing projects including an application to the EPA for $125,000 for additional assessment of the Big Yank property. He said that the application had “passed the first hurdle” by being accepted.
He also said that a resolution passed by Aldermen to move the Ward Two polling location to the county court house has been submitted to the Justice Department. It had been located in the former home economist’s office – which has been torn down.
Finally, he said that the electric department had received the first check from MetroCast, the television cable company, for the revised pole attachment rates. The check, which is for the first six months of 2009, was $15,337. Under the old rates, the city only received about $3,000 for the same period.
• Accepted culvert bids from Williams Equipment and Hanson.
• Adopted an ordinance that sets fees and policy for building permits.
• Tabled until the next meeting any changes in the rental rates and policy for the Civic Auditorium.
• Paid a Baker Street Park grant invoice of $10,209.36.
• Approved the appointment of Linda Williamson to the Blackmur Memorial Library Board.
• Agreed to purchase four park benches from Mississippi Prison Industries for the walking track in the Crawford Sports Complex. The mayor told the board that several trees would also be replaced that had deteriorated.
• Heard a presentation from David Burns on service policy revisions for the Electric Department. Burns explained that he and Department Manager Joe Newman had worked together by taking a “hodge-podge” of old policies to create a new, more structured policy that is easier to follow.
Burns emphasized that the new policies don’t affect billing rates, but will make minor changes in some charges such as those for reconnections. He added that the policy changes would include more severe penalties for meter tampering.
• Adopted a resolution to establish goals for minority and women business enterprise participation. Adoption of the resolution is required for receiving government grants.
• Approved a request from the Water Valley Main Street Association to make Saturday, May 9, Market Fest Day. According to Susan Hart, program manager for WVMSA, the event will carry on the tradition set by Founders Day last year.
• Amended a property description at the request of Attorney John Crow to correct an error made to a deed in 1994.
The board met for just over 40 minutes and adjourned without an executive session. Regular meetings are scheduled for the first Tuesday of each month beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the boardroom at City Hall.