Agencies say they responded to water complaints

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Twelve North Lee County Water Association customers had complained about their service to the state Public Service Commission from January until Sept. 30, the day allegations of corruption within the utility became public news.
That’s in addition to the 65 previous complaints against the association since Northern Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley first took office in 2008.
Presley, who has emerged as a major figure in the attempt to reorganize the embattled water association, has come under fire by some customers claiming he ignored previous pleas for help.
But, according to PSC records, each complaint was handled and resolved within 24 hours of the initial call.
“It’s a little unfair for people to say they’ve told us for years and we’ve done nothing,” said Presley at his Nettleton office on Friday, clicking through the digital case files stored on the PSC computer system. “Every single one of them had action taken on it,” he said.
The Mississippi Department of Health also shared some of the criticism, with customers claiming their complaints to the state had fallen on deaf ears. MSDH spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said investigators went to North Lee 25 times in the past five years as a result of consumer calls.
She didn’t know how many complaints had been logged with the MSDH, but she said anytime a caller reports a dangerous condition or if it gets rash of calls all at once, it dispatches a team.
Presley, though, knew the exact number. He pulled meticulous records on all 1,105 calls logged against each of his district’s 262 water associations since he took office nearly four years ago.
Of those calls, 77 originated from North Lee customers. The majority involved reports of dirty or foul-smelling water and trouble with bills. None alleged wrongdoing within the association, which was revealed during a Daily Journal investigation last week.
Each complaint had been assigned an investigator who, records show, responded within hours of the original call. And in nearly every case, investigators met residents, observed water, contacted the association and arranged to have chemicals added or lines flushed. A follow-up call then followed.
Most reports also noted requests for residents to call back if the problem returned. Few ever did.
Despite North Lee’s problems, its complaint-per-total-customer ratio is typical of other rural utilities across the northern district, and it didn’t throw up a red flag for PSC investigators.
North Lee, one of the largest water associations, has 4,400 customers. With 77 calls since 2008, its complaint ratio is 1.7 percent. That’s in line with the Palmetto and Blue Springs water associations, whose ratios for the same period are 1.5 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively.
In a random sampling of 10 rural water associations, North Lee’s ratio was somewhere in the middle – five were worse, four were better.
The best ratio was Monroe County’s Cason Water Association, which in nearly four years had only 13 complaints for its 1,650 customers. The worst was Northeast Itawamba, which had 69 complaints for its 1,700 customers during the same time period.
“Bottom line is,” Presley said, “if someone calls, we take action on it. That’s our policy, and that’s what we’ve done.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com