North Lee County Water Association in court today

By Emily Le Coz

TUPELO – Auburn water system customers will continue getting service from North Lee after a decision Thursday by Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.

The city of Tupelo and North Lee County Water Association spent two hours in chancery court vying for possession of the Auburn water system.

Both sides presented their cases in an open hearing to Presley, who ultimately ruled in favor of North Lee.

The hearing began at 10 a.m.

North Lee purchased the Auburn system from the Mooreville-Richmond Water Association last summer for $12,500 but never sought permission from the Public Service Commission.

When North Lee finally filed a petition for Auburn with the PSC, Tupelo formally objected because of its proximity to the city limits. Some 400 customers – about 1,000 people – receive water from the Auburn system.

North Lee attorney Bill Beasley, argued that proximity to the city alone doesn’t preclude the utility from serving Auburn. Tupelo attorney Otis Tims, though, said Tupelo is in a better position to serve Auburn customers and that, if its pending annexation passes, portions of Auburn will be within the city limits.

Presley scolded everyone in the courtroom during the proceedings, which continue now with witness testimony.

“We’re all here today in a mess that’s caused by illegal actions caused by city of Tupelo, Mooreville-Richmond Water Association and North Lee County Water Association,” Presley said. “These certificate matters are serious matters.”

He said the PSC could have fined North Lee and Mooreville-Richmond $1.2 million each for illegally transferring the system.

North Lee County Water Association Board President Ken Clemons testifies: He tells the Public Service Commission about the improvements implemented since he and the new board of directors took over in November.

He called the utility “a hornets’ nest” when he took over due to the numerous problems it had as a result of unprofessional conduct and poor management.

Now, however, North Lee is a well-run business with trained staff and improved water quality and service. Customer complaints have diminished, he said.

The utility can adequately assume responsibility of the Auburn system, which it has operated since last summer despite lacking PSC approval.

North Lee had come under fire in September for a series of allegations by employees who said, among other things, that they were forced to work off-site for their boss while clocked in at the association. Ultimately, the manager and entire board of directors resigned and the allegations remain under investigation by state and federal agencies.