Residents furious with water company

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – North Lee Water Association customers are outraged at what they call inexcusable conduct from association leaders and a history of substandard service.
More than two dozen customers and one former employee of North Lee contacted the Daily Journal on Friday to share their experiences with filthy water and woeful customer service. They said they are frustrated by corruption within the organization and want to see accountability.
“It’s a good ol’ boy syndrome,” said Northridge Crossing resident and water customer Rick Atwater. “I think we ought to see if they’re doing anything illegal, and if they are, they need to be held accountable.”
Their claims came on the heels of a Daily Journal investigation published Friday after two association workers were seen Tuesday repairing shutters on an apartment building in The Oaks, a subdivision off Green Tee Road in south Tupelo and outside the association’s district.
The story quoted association employees who said they’re tasked with working side jobs while on the clock at North Lee. They said association Supervisor Dan Durham sends them to paint houses, mow yards, fix appliances and perform other tasks that benefit his personal business, Durham Electric, while they’re supposed to be maintaining the water lines.
Employees also said most of these side jobs are on the properties of association board President Mitchell Scruggs, who also owns farmland, subdivisions and the Scruggs Farm Lawn & Garden business.
Scruggs and Durham denied the allegations, claiming the employees must be confused.
Records also show that Durham’s grandson, Tyler Durham, has worked full-time for the association since he was a junior in high school and that he clocks in every morning but never clocks out.
Former association employee Daniel Bass confirmed his colleagues’ claims. He said Durham had repeatedly sent him to Scruggs’ properties, as well as those owned by Cooper Realty and the Durham family, to perform a host of handyman jobs.
“I’d clock in, and I would go straight out to do Dan’s stuff,” Bass said. “Sometimes there were weeks I’d work at the water department, some weeks I’d work for Dan Durham and get paid by North Lee.”
Scruggs said he hires Durham’s private business for property maintenance but that he never saw association employees working in that capacity. The manager of Cooper Realty, Linda Beck, could not immediately be reached for comment. A company director, Milton Weems, said he didn’t know anything about it.
Bass said he’d rack up 70 or 80 hours a week and never get paid overtime.
In addition, Bass said he had to clean sewage and sewer lines in Scruggs’ subdivisions, using the same equipment and tools he used for water lines. He also alleged that the water samples sent for mandatory state testing were drawn each time from the same house, instead of from houses throughout the district as required.
Another employee, Sonny Noble, confirmed what Bass said. Durham denied both allegations.
“As far as water system stuff,” Bass said, “it seemed totally illegal to me.”
Bass quit several months ago for a better-paying job.
Meanwhile, the water system ranks among the worst in the county, according to the Mississippi Department of Health, and it scores about 20 percent lower than the statewide average.
“It kind of makes sense to me, if they’re not doing something about the water it’s because they’re busy doing something elsewhere,” said customer Brandon Johnson, who lives just west of Tupelo and has complained for two years about smelly, chalky water.
“I think we need a whole new set of people in there,” he said.
Ultimately, Johnson and the association’s other approximately 4,400 customers get to decide whether the current board directors stay or go. Each customer gets to vote for directors at the association’s annual meeting.
That meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at North Lee’s office on Birmingham Ridge Road.
“As a member of the association, I want any corruption to end and those found guilty to be brought to justice,” said Christian Reed, a customer who lives near Sherman. “However, my primary focus at this point is to get safe and clean water for my family.”
Call after call to the Daily Journal on Friday recounted the same story – consistently terrible water, no help from association staff or board members, and no help from outside agencies like the Public Service Commission.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said his agency has limited jurisdiction over rural water associations due to weaknesses in the state law. His staff can pursue complaints about poor water and pressure the associations to fix those issues, but he can’t regulate the board or its actions.
He said North Lee’s problems are symptomatic of issues plaguing rural water association customers statewide, and it’s time the Legislature passed tougher laws to regulate them.
“There needs to be an overhaul of the laws related to water associations,” he said. “If you have that, then we’re not in this no-man’s land over who has got jurisdiction.”
Still, Presley said his office is launching an investigation into areas over which it has authority. He said he’ll send his findings to the state Attorney General’s office.
Dr. Derek and Penny Moeller said it can’t happen soon enough. The couple has suffered “horrific” water during the nine years they have lived in Macedonia. Penny Moeller said she’s afraid to bathe her children in it and won’t drink the water until it has been boiled.
“I have tried getting a hold of the state water guy, but it seems like nobody is dealing with the situation,” she said. “I think they need to be held accountable for the standard of water and if they’re not doing the job properly, a new board should be elected.”
The Moellers and other customers also said they never get boil water notices, which alert residents to potentially hazardous conditions in the water and recommend boiling it before consummation.
The association has had 10 state-issued boil water alerts in the past three years, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com