Troubled waters

Mantachie’s four-year effort to increase its water rate for some customers may be coming to an end.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is planning to host a public hearing to discuss a proposed $4 rate increase for approximately 120 Mantachie water system customers who live outside the town limits by the end of August.

If the increase is approved, it will bring to an end a nearly half-decade effort on the part of the town to increase these rates.

“I’ve never dealt with a rate increase this in-depth in my 17 years of working here,” said Rod McFerrin, utilities manager for the town. “This thing has been going on for years, now … There’s no reason for this to have gone on this long.”

Currently, there are 680 customers on the town’s water system who pay what McFerrin called the “full rate.” For these customers, a monthly water bill starts at a minimum of $17.06 for 2,000 gallons, then $2.53 per 1,000 gallons after.

But there are approximately 120 customers who pay considerably less than the “full rate.” For them, monthly bills start at $13 for up to 2,000 gallons, then $2.53 per additional 1,000 gallons used.

According to McFerrin, the difference between these two rates costs the town approximately $500 per month.

So, why the different rates? The customer base for the town’s water service can be broken into two parts: customers who live either inside the town’s limits or within one mile of them, and the customers who don’t live in Mantachie but receive service from the town.

Raising the service rates for the former customer type is relatively straightforward. The town’s board of aldermen posts a public notice of the increase, and barring any major problems, the increase goes into effect a few weeks later.

But customers who don’t live in town fall under the protection of the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC). The group oversees the customers outside the town limits because they don’t have a vote in Mantachie’s elections, when the board is selected. The PSC acts as their voice.

Because of this, any increase to their water rates must be approved by the PSC.

A notice of intent must be submitted to the PSC, along with a laundry list of data justifying the increase.

This includes, among other things, the number of customers both inside and outside the town limits and a breakdown of all the actions the town has taken to reduce the cost of water for its jurisdictional customers since the last rate increase. In Mantachie’s case, that was a long time ago.

“The last increase for every customer on the water system was in 2007,” McFerrin said. Since then, town residents have had their water rates increased several times. Those customers outside the town’s limits, however, have yet to see an increase.

According to McFerrin’s personal notes chronicling the attempted rate increase, in Sept. 2010, the town hosted a special meeting to discuss a proposed water rate increase for all its customers. Following that meeting, the town’s board of aldermen voted to increase the rates. The rates went up for customers within Mantachie’s limits but couldn’t be raised for those outside the town without the approval of the PSC.

In Feb. 2011, the town paid their attorney at the time, Greg Keenum, a $5,000 retaining fee to handle paperwork for filing the change with the Public Service Commission. For two years, Keenum supposedly worked on gathering the information requested by the PSC. As far as town officials know, the paperwork was never completed and the motion never filed.

In Sept. 2012, the board held an executive session to ask Keenum to repay the money. In December of that same year, Keenum filed the motion with the Public Service Commission.

In Jan. 2013, Keenum reportedly withdrew the request for reasons unknown.

In Dec. 2013, under the direction of a new board of aldermen and a new attorney, the town filed a new request with the Public Service Commission. This time, McFerrin worked with the Rural Water Association to complete the request. The following January, the request had to be withdrawn to collect more information. A representative from the Public Service Commission came to Mantachie to help with the process.

A new motion was filed in February 2014. It appears on the docket in May of 2014 and was passed on to Presley’s office earlier this month.

According to Presley, once all of the paperwork for a requested increase is in order, the process usually doesn’t take long on the PSC’s end.

“It varies from case to case, but usually depends on the types of issues laying out there,” he said. “We can’t make a decision until we have all the information that we need.”

Presley said the public meeting, which should be scheduled for sometime within the next 30 days, will give people a chance to weigh in on the increase and let Mantachie officials present why it is needed.

The decision whether or not to approve the increase will come soon after, he said, although he didn’t give an exact timeframe.

If it does pass, it should bring to a close a chapter town officials will be eager to put behind them … water under the bridge, as it were. It’s been frustrating, McFerrin said, having to deal with a seemingly simple issue for so long.

“We’re asking for them to pay the exact same rate as everyone else. I don’t think that’s being unfair,” he said.

About Adam Armour

Adam Armour has been writing and taking photographs for "The Itawamba County Times" since 2005. His words and pictures have earned 18 Mississippi Press Association Awards, including several "Best of" category recognitions. He has written and independently published one novel and is currently working on a second.