By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – North Lee County Water Association can continue serving some 400 Auburn customers after a decision Thursday.
The association had battled Tupelo for the rights to provide water to the Auburn system during a two-hour hearing at the Lee County Justice Center.
Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley presided and ultimately ruled in favor of North Lee, but not before scolding some parties for operating outside the law.
“We’re all here today in a mess that’s caused by illegal actions,” Presley said during the hearing. “These certificate matters are serious matters.”
North Lee had purchased the Auburn system from the Mooreville-Richmond Water Association last summer but never sought permission from the Public Service Commission. Presley said he could have fined both entities $1.2 million for bypassing the PSC.
When North Lee finally filed a petition for Auburn with the PSC, Tupelo formally objected because of its proximity to the city limits. City attorney Otis Tims said Tupelo already served about 30 Auburn customers through a gentlemen’s agreement and had been assured an official transfer of that system at a future time.
Presley said Tupelo’s proximity gives it no legal right to serve the system and further admonished the city and Mooreville-Richmond for operating with an informal agreement instead of going through the PSC, but Tims later amended his statement upon realizing an official agreement did exist.
The commissioner further denied Tims’ request to postpone a decision until the outcome of Tupelo’s pending annexation case. Some of Auburn lies within the city’s proposed expanded boundaries, and Tims said Tupelo would have to come before the PSC again if annexation is approved.
North Lee attorney Bill Beasley also argued that proximity to the city alone doesn’t grant Tupelo any special rights. He called several witnesses, including association president Ken Clemons, to talk about the many improvements at North Lee and its ability to serve Auburn customers since allegations of mismanagement surfaced last year.
Ultimately, that mismanagement led to the manager and entire board of directors’ resignation. The allegations remain under investigation by state and federal agencies.