Pushback expected on rural water bills

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – As promised, Northeast Mississippi legislators this month introduced a trio of bills seeking more transparency and regulation of rural water associations.
But they’re hotly opposed by the Mississippi Rural Water Association.
State Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, and state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, floated identical bills placing rural water systems under the Open Meetings Act, just like any public body.
Another bill, introduced by state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, would allow the Mississippi Public Service Commission to regulate rates set by rural water associations, just as it does other utilities.
All bills were introduced last week and have been referred to various committees, but their outcomes remain murky.
Holland’s legislation must pass two committees, Ways and Means and Public Utilities. State Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, who chairs Public Utilities, said he hasn’t decided yet whether to bring up the bill but will study it.
Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, who chairs Ways and Means, wasn’t immediately available for comment.
“I do think that rural water systems are a public entity,” Holland said. “Everybody is on some community water system, and it seemed like the right thing to do was to regulate rural water as we do other utilities.”
Turner’s bill also goes to Public Utilities, and Beckett said he hadn’t yet decided on that one, either. If it passes that committee, it then will go to the one Turner chairs: Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency.
“If it comes to my committee, we’re going to pass it out,” Turner said. “I think my committee would do that.”
Collins’ bill goes to Senate Judiciary B, led by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. Bryan said he generally supports transparency but hasn’t yet reviewed the bill and therefore cannot comment.
The interest comes after allegations surfaced in September about wrongdoing at North Lee County Water Association and widespread customer complaints about being denied access to that association’s board meetings and records.
North Lee, like hundreds of other rural water associations in the state, was established as a private nonprofit entity accountable to member customers but not to the public. And though the associations must follow state and federal laws governing water quality and business filings, they have absolute control over utility rates and meeting access.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said he supports the legislation and wants to see it passed.
But Mississippi Rural Water Association Chief Executive Officer Kirby Mayfield has said such measures are unnecessary. In a previous interview, Mayfield said it’s unfair to let a few mismanaged organizations set the tone for the entire state.
The MRWA is tracking these bills, plus others, and plans an event at the state Capitol on Thursday to lobby against them.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com