By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
CORRECTION: A story in Friday’s NEMS Daily Journal should have stated that the North Lee Water Association acquired the Auburn Water system from the Mooreville Richmond Water Association. It did not acquire the Mooreville Richmond Water Association itself.
TUPELO – North Lee County Water Association employees say they routinely perform side work for their boss and board president while on the clock, charging hundreds of hours to rate-paying customers.
The practice is so widespread, employees say, that they often spend entire days painting houses and fixing toilets instead of maintaining the association’s network of wells and water lines.
Association Supervisor Dan Durham and board President Mitchell Scruggs deny the accusations, claiming the employees must be confused.
On Tuesday, a Daily Journal reporter saw two association workers repairing shutters on an apartment building in The Oaks, a subdivision off Green Tee Road in south Tupelo and outside the association’s district.
When asked, the employees identified themselves and said they were sent by their supervisor, whom they named as Dan Durham.
Both men said they were on the clock at North Lee and that Durham frequently dispatched them to perform work unrelated to their duties with the water association. Durham has his own electrical and handyman business in addition to his role with the association.
The association confirmed the men, who did not want their names published, as employees.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said his agency hadn’t heard about the situation but will launch an investigation and submit any findings to the Mississippi Attorney General.
North Lee Water Association is a nonprofit corporation that provides water to about 4,400 members in its district. It covers slivers of Guntown and Saltillo, as well as unincorporated areas throughout north Lee County. Members pay utility fees, which fund the operation and provide them water.
But some members say their service is poor and the water is dirty, coming out brown or amber in color with a grainy, sometimes oily texture. Complaints to the association staff and board haven’t solved the problem.
“The bottom line is, you want good water,” said Dr. Robert Dale of Ravenwood Cove. “You look at this stuff that comes out, the sediment – oily, greasy, dirty sediment – our water is filtered five times before we can drink it. Some people can’t even wash their clothes in their washing machine.”
Dale said his wife has called the office repeatedly and complained to the board, but her concerns typically are brushed off. The situation, he said, has plagued them since they moved into their house in October 2000.
Also frustrated are Macedonia residents Sue Wise and Pat McCarty, who said their water is “horrible.” McCarty said her complaints are dismissed. And when Wise tried to go to a monthly board meeting, directors told her she couldn’t attend. They finally gave her a special exception and allowed her to sit in, but she said she feels unwelcome.
According to the board’s own policy, adopted March 4, 2009, the association is to “never tell a member that they can come to the board meeting, and if they want to speak with someone else, tell them that Dan Durham is your supervisor and they can speak with him.”
Under state law, nonprofit corporations cannot block members from attending board meetings or accessing records.
The state Department of Health annually grades each of North Lee Water Association’s wells, as it does all wells statewide. They’re graded on a scale from 0-5, with 5 being the best.
North Lee’s scores for the most recent inspection ranged from 2.7 in Lake Piomingo and Barnes Crossing, to a 5 in Mooreville Richmond. The association purchased the Mooreville Richmond system this year. It consistently scored a 5 in prior years.
North Lee’s overall average score was 3.3. Without Mooreville Richmond, it’s a 3.
That’s compared to the 5 scored by Nettleton, Plantersville and Saltillo, the 4.3 in Tupelo or the 4 in Guntown, according to the Department of Health’s annual report.
Statewide, the average is 4.09.
Durham said he and his staff spend long hours maintaining the system and keeping water clean, but he said some sediment can’t be helped.
Other employees agreed they work long hours – most log anywhere from 50 to 80 a week – but said that they spend as much time on side jobs as they do on actual water work.
Employee Sonny Noble confirmed that Durham frequently sent him to do jobs for his private business, Durham Electric, while on the clock at North Lee. But after Noble began complaining about the situation, he said he no longer got those assignments.
When initially contacted by the Daily Journal on Tuesday, Durham denied sending the two water association employees to fix shutters for him. He said he didn’t know why they were at the Tupelo apartment complex and that if they were, they probably had the day off.
When asked if association employees ever worked for his private business, Durham said no, that he runs a solo operation.
“It’s no one but me,” he said.
But in a second interview a couple of hours later, Durham changed his statement. He said the two employees indeed work for his private business, but only after hours and on the weekend. He said he sent them to the apartment Tuesday to repair shutters and that they weren’t on the clock for the association; it was their day off.
The Daily Journal reviewed time cards at the water association’s Birmingham Ridge Road office on Wednesday and found one of the two shutter-fixing employee’s cards missing. The other man’s card had been punched Wednesday, but not Monday or Tuesday – when he was at the apartment complex.
It was the only card since the start of that worker’s tenure that hadn’t been punched Monday or Tuesday. All the other cards in his file had been punched Monday through Friday, every week, barring vacations. In fact, every time card of every employee whose file the Daily Journal was allowed to review had been punched Monday through Friday – except for the meter reader, who works Monday through Thursday.
Noble said that he saw both men clock in on Tuesday morning and that when he returned from his shift both of their time cards were gone.
Durham said he paid the two shutter fixers out of his personal business account and not from the association’s payroll. But he could not produce proof of that, because he said he only pays them in cash.
Also revealed during the time-card review was the fact that Durham’s grandson, Tyler Durham, clocks in every morning around 6:45 a.m. but never clocks out. And he logs exactly 50 hours each week, except the week of July 4 when he recorded 61 hours. Other employees’ hours fluctuate from week to week – 68:15 hours here, 76:30 hours there.
The elder Durham said that’s because his grandson rides around with him during the day, and then he takes him home at night without stopping back at the office to let him clock out. He denied it was special treatment.
Records also show that Tyler Durham has been working at the association since he was a junior at Mooreville High School. He logged 36 hours a week as a junior and 40 hours a week as a senior. When he graduated in May, his hours jumped to 50 per week.
When asked how a high school student could hold down a full-time job, Dan Durham said his grandson left school early each day to work for him and that he mostly mows grass and inspects wells.
“I’m trying to teach him something,” the elder Durham said. “He needs to learn how to get out of bed in the morning.”
Tyler Durham earns $10.50 per hour – a half dollar more than at least two other employees. But at least three association staff members say they never see the young man at work, not even with his grandfather.
According to Noble and another employee, who identified himself to the Daily Journal but asked not to be named for fear of losing his job, most of the side jobs Durham makes them perform are on Scruggs’ properties.
“We paint his apartments, replace toilets in the units, anything we’re asked to do,” said the employee. “That’s all I did the first two months I worked here.”
A businessman, Scruggs owns farmland, subdivisions and rental property, as well as the home-improvement warehouse, Scruggs Farm Lawn & Garden. He also presides over the board of directors that oversees the association.
According to the association’s bylaws, seven directors are supposed to be elected from, and by, water customers at the annual meeting and serve seven-year terms.
The only time the board can elect a director without the consensus of members at the annual meeting is in the case of a vacancy. However, the board apparently ignored its own bylaws by electing an eighth director, Bruce Parker, on April 4.
He was recommended by Scruggs, board minutes show.
The next annual meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the association’s office building on Birmingham Ridge Road.
In an interview with the Daily Journal, Scruggs admitted he hires Durham for various jobs but that Durham has another set of employees who work only for his side business. These are the ones Durham sends to Scruggs’ jobs, Scruggs said. It’s never water association workers.
But Durham said he doesn’t have separate employees. He does most of the work himself. Otherwise he sends the two employees he previously identified – the two who were repairing shutters – but only on nights and weekends, and on Monday and Tuesday this week.
Scruggs said he was unaware that water association employees were working for Durham’s personal business. He also said the two employees must have been confused when they told a reporter they were doing side jobs while on the clock at North Lee. Also confused, he said, were the other workers who spoke with the Daily Journal.
“They must have misunderstood your questions,” Scruggs said. “If it’s true, then we’ve got a problem.”
Several attempts to contact the shutter-fixing employees afterward, to confirm they had understood, were unsuccessful. But Noble and the other two workers who spoke to the media said they understood the questions and stood by their statements.
THE NORTH LEE WATER ASSOCIATION will hold its annual board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at its office, 1004 Birmingham Ridge Road in Saltillo.
Mitchell Scruggs, president; Lamar Hunter; Jimmy Bucy; Don Winders; Terry Herring; Wayne Fitzer; Hal Swann; Bruce Parker.