By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – What began 45 years ago as a rural water association for a few dozen customers now accounts for one of the largest nonprofit utilities in the region.
North Lee County Water Association, which is the focus of an ongoing Daily Journal investigation into mismanagement, serves roughly 4,400 customers on seven separate water systems scattered throughout the county.
It also owns a fleet of vehicles and heavy machinery – excavators, road boring equipment and trenchers – to maintain its hundreds of miles of pipes, 19 wells and 19 tanks.
In its most recent fiscal year, which ended in June, the association generated more than $1 million annually, mostly from its monthly utility fees, and it spent about $805,000. Salaries, electricity and materials and supplies accounted for the biggest expenditures.
As of last week, it had roughly $1.2 million in the bank.
“When we first started, we had two wells and one man over the thing, and he had a man helping him,” said former association board Vice President Jimmy Bucy, who served 30 years before resigning under pressure last week.
Bucy was among four longtime members who stepped down amid the shouts of hundreds of customers demanding answers about dirty water and allegations of fraud. They all were attending the association’s annual meeting Oct. 4, and many were blaming the board for ignoring long-festering problems and fostering an atmosphere of secrecy.
Also leaving were Secretary Don Winders, Lamar Hunter, Terry Herring, and Hal Swann. All served between eight to 25 years on the board.
Three original directors, including President Mitchell Scruggs remain, and two interim directors also now serve.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, the North Lee County Water Association was created in 1966 by Balfour Ruff, Raymond Carlock and Roy Miller. Other founding members include Harrell Scruggs and Rex Parker, according to Bucy.
It was financed with a loan from the USDA Farmers Home Administration.
In the beginning, the association “put a lot of small lines in, not expecting it to grow,” Bucy said. “It was all four-inch lines.”
But over the years, lines were upgraded. The association also acquired other water systems – Trace, Lake Piomingo, Auburn. It added wells and tanks. It hired more staff.
And about 19 years ago, it brought on Dan Durham to supervise all daily operations. Durham, who ran a small electrical business in Tupelo, initially took the job as a part-time occupation, he told the Daily Journal last month.
But he usually clocked in 60 hours a week, and managed a crew of nine men and an office staff of two women. Many past and present employees have told the Daily Journal that Durham forced them to perform side jobs for his private company while on the clock at North Lee.
They also said he falsified water samples required by the state and that he made them fix sewers with equipment meant only for water lines.
Durham denied the allegations but was forced to resign last week by the interim board. The Mississippi Department of Health and state Public Service Commission also now are investigating those claims.
During his tenure, the water association acted as a revolving door for employees. In the past five years alone, 51 workers have come and gone.
Most board directors, by their own admissions, remained only passively aware of North Lee’s daily operations – or the litany of customer complaints.
“The board met once a month, and if it wasn’t brought up, I didn’t know about it,” Bucy said. “We have tried to give everybody the service they deserve. I think we’ve done a really good job of it.”
But Bucy hails from an earlier era of the North Lee County Water Association. When he joined the board in 1981, it had a few hundred customers and still traded land with farmers in exchange for unlimited access to free water.
Scruggs and Winders also each have served more than two decades on the board.
But while the operation side of the business grew and changed, the board saw little change. Seats rarely changed hands, and the bylaws never evolved despite changes in the state’s nonprofit law over the years.
It doesn’t mean board members did anything wrong, Swann told the Daily Journal last week.
“There’s been a lot of stuff said about the board,” he said. “The members of the board are good men that try to do a good job and provide good service.”
Now it will be up to a new set of board members to run the operation – with the help of the Mississippi Rural Water Association and the state Public Service Commission.
North Lee will hold an election within the next 30 days to fill all of the board’s seats. Nine people are expected to run for the positions, and all customers will be able to vote.