By Dustin Barnes/The Clarion Ledger
JACKSON – Residents along Ross Barnett Reservoir soon will gain control of the 33,000-acre lake that was funded primarily with Hinds County and Jackson tax dollars and is now a draw to 2.5 million visitors annually.
Created 50 years ago as a water supply for Mississippi’s capital city, the reservoir has evolved into a recreational mecca.
Now, it promises to evolve again in a way that may dramatically alter its landscape.
Although it is still state land and Jackson’s water source, it will be the residents living there who will have the deciding voice on the board over the reservoir’s governing agency.
Decisions by the board of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District can have far-reaching effects, overseeing most aspects of life on the reservoir. With the makeup of the board shifting to a majority of residents, changes could include adding special fees to use campgrounds or an ordinance that would limit hours boats are allowed on the water.
Whether it does any of those things remains to be seen.
“It seems like the more people stay out there, they think of it as their personal property,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “A lot of the parks and events out there are increasingly seeming like they’re private. But that’s for public use.
“It’s not their property. It’s state land.”
Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, sees it differently.
“Nobody on Jackson City Council lives on PRV lands,” said the freshman lawmaker. He authored Senate Bill 2703, which requires a majority of PRV board members to live on lands leased from the agency. “Why would you have a majority of people on a board that don’t live there?”
Harkins said his bill, which passed during the 2012 legislative session, will create more fairness for residents who have long felt left out of the decision-making process that deals with their own homes.
“Who has the biggest interest in the success of the reservoir? That would be leaseholders,” said Harkins, who grew up on the reservoir. “They have the most to gain and to lose.”
“I know some in Hinds County are upset,” said Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon. “But these people have a vested interest in making sure the reservoir is the best it could be.”
So do the taxpayers of Hinds County and the city of Jackson.
The reservoir was constructed in part with $36 million from Hinds County taxpayers and $15.5 million in city of Jackson tax funds.
“We paid for it,” Horhn said. “Over the years, Hinds County and Jackson were responsible for the construction and development of the reservoir.”
Horhn said as the reservoir area has evolved into a large residential development, the residents feel they should have more of a say in it.
“Before this change, though, there was a lot of inequity,” Horhn said. “Hinds County is on the board, but Jackson has never had representation.
“And it was principally to be our source of water.”
The five counties comprising PRV – Hinds, Leake, Scott, Rankin and Madison – now have two representatives each on the board who are selected by their respective board of supervisors.
The other four members are appointees from the state Board of Health, state Department of Environmental Quality, state Forestry Commission and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Senate Bill 2703, which goes into effect in January, stipulates all of Madison and Rankin counties’ four appointees, as well as all four members from the state agencies, must live on land leased from PRV or in a subdivision with a portion lying within leased land.
The final tally on the new board: eight reservoir residents; six from Hinds, Scott and Leake counties.
“The PRV was great in 1958,” said Homer Burns, president of the Federation of Reservoir Homeowners. “The things they set up were exactly the way they should be with the representation.
“But since then things have changed. We’ve had six or seven U.S. Census reports and with each census representation changes. And we have not had representation change on PRV.”
Baker said he believes it’s about offering representation to the leaseholders.
“Around 98 percent of the operating revenues for PRV is paid for by residential leaseholders through their lease payments,” Baker said. “There’s no (state) general funds money that goes into this. So for all intents and purposes, (the lease payments) are like their municipal taxes.”
Lease payments differ depending on the location and age of the subdivision. PRV takes in roughly $4.5 million a year from lease agreements.
Baker said the shift in the Mississippi House to Republican control in the new session helped pass the reservoir-related legislation.
“With the changing of the guard at the Capitol, a Rankin County official was able to hold, handle and see each piece of (reservoir) legislation all the way through.”
Rep. Kevin McGee, R-Brandon, serves as vice chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee, one of the hurdles that SB 2703 had to face before making it to the governor, Baker pointed out.
And two reservoir-related bills came through the House Judiciary A Committee, which Baker chairs.
“My understanding of the issues facing reservoir residents certainly helped, but the role Sen. Harkins played was invaluable,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate and lives in Flowood.
“Sen. Harkins’ tireless efforts on behalf of reservoir residents played a major role in getting the legislation passed,” Reeves added.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a resident of the reservoir area, has long been a reservoir supporter, said spokesman Mick Bullock. Bryant “authored similar legislation,” when he served in the House, Bullock said.
“We did get some bills passed in the Legislature that have gone before lawmakers in past sessions,” Sigman said, adding he wants to continue to work with the delegates to meet the needs of leaseholders and recreational users.
“We don’t have a legislative agenda at this point,” he said.
While some residents have said they like the idea of the PRV having more leaseholder input, they also wondered if the new residential presence would be truly representative of the entire community.
“People living out there, they know what the issues are, said Debra Veeder, a resident of Fox Bay. “But I don’t want to see somebody just appoint their best friend.
“We don’t need all (of the appointees) from Fox Bay or the Palisades because their concerns may not be your concerns.”
Instead Veeder said appointees should encompass a variety of subdivisions, mixing older and newer areas to get more sides of the issues.
Harkins said the supervisors will be accountable to their voters, so they’ll answer to constituents over their appointees.
The appointees will coincide with the four-year terms of the supervisors, he said.
Harkins said he’s pleased with getting the change pushed through so leaseholders can become more involved.
“This is the governing body over the property they live on,” he said. “This will give them a say in their government.”