Cities vote to sue: You spent $159M on county, not us

Gautier is one of four cities suing the Jackson County Utility District.
Gautier is one of four cities suing the Jackson County Utility District. Sun Herald/File

All four cities in Jackson County voted Tuesday night to sue the Jackson County Utility Authority that treats their sewage.

The lawsuit was expected to be filed in Jackson County Chancery Court on Wednesday afternoon by attorneys with Dogan & Wilkinson, which represents some of the cities.

Gautier Mayor Gordon Gollott said the city is suing over unfair rates and access to records.

The issue goes back to money that poured into the Utility Authority after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cities believe the JCUA spent the bulk of it, $180 million, on laying sewer lines and building sewage treatment for the unincorporated areas of Jackson County — an initiative urged by the state to tempt people to move away from the flood zones.

The cities, however, entered a contract with the Utility Authority in the 1980s that said the JCUA would not add new customers if doing that would increase the cost to the cities.

In other words, they couldn’t add users outside the cities and transfer the cost of maintaining those lines to the cities.

Recent rate increases have caused the cities to believe the JCUA has done just that, even though the Utility Authority has said otherwise. Doing so could be considered breaking the contract, the cities say.

The cities say the JCUA spent $159 million of the post-Katrina grants on the unincorporated area with few customers to support the building effort.

Now those lines must be maintained, they say. They say the JCUA spent only $21 million on the cities.

A lawsuit is only one side of the story, and the JCUA has told the Sun Herald that the state and federal government had a great deal to do with how the $180 million was spent.

Attorney Jimmy Heidelberg, speaking for the JCUA, said it went further than that. He said the Mississippi Development Authority and the state DEQ assigned the projects the JCUA did with federal money after the hurricane.

Heidelberg said the Utility Authority has given the cities all the records they’ve asked for, and with JCUA accounting, there’s no way the cities are paying to maintain infrastructure in the outlying areas of the county.

He said the vote to sue sounds like a continuation of an effort where the cities spent $120,000 on a lobbyist to convince the Legislature to change the organizational structure of the JCUA.

And Heidelberg said “it is absurd” for cities to say they don’t know what’s going on with the JCUA.

“Cities have the majority of the appointees on the board,” he said.