Harrison County

Water bills in Gulfport are soaring and no longer arrive on time. What’s going on?

The skyrocketing cost and sporadic delivery of utility bills is alarming some residents of Gulfport.

Loretta Howard, who is 88 years old and lives alone, received a $213 utility bill from the city this month. It covered 43 days instead of the usual 30 days, but was still far more than the $39.42 she paid each month from March through August.

The money is due Oct. 25 unless she wants to pay a $40 late fee.

“I’m on a limited income,” she said. “If I pay that bill, it means I’m going to be short on groceries.”

Neighbor James Barton, 89, saw a 119% hike over the amount he had paid for months.

Price isn’t the only problem. Utility bills for water, sewer and garbage collection usually cover a month, but the time frame has varied since about March, said another resident who contacted the Sun Herald.

The sporadic billing is problematic for residents who have the charges automatically deducted from their checking accounts. Also, when a billing cycle lasts more than 30 days, it can drive up use and cost.

“I’ve had no success getting any answers or information,” said Marley Walker, who lives in the Turtle Creek subdivision north of Orange Grove. “Why didn’t they take the time to send a notice letting the people know what was going on?”

Walker’s bill was up 92% for the extended billing period, while one of his neighbors saw a 59% increase.

The city’s public information officer, LaShaundra McCarty, said the register heads are broken on some of the city’s electronic meters and are being replaced. She said this applies to less than 15% of register heads.

The city’s electronic meters were supposed to make meter reading more efficient and save money. Workers can read the electronic meters from their trucks.

The meters with broken register heads are not sending a signal, so those meters must be read manually, which takes longer and has in some cases delayed billing.

McCarty said the city is replacing broken register heads with new ones that can be read from a central location. This year, $1.1 million has been budgeted for the work.

The city plans to spend a total of $4.2 million to replace all the register heads so workers will no longer have to drive around to read meters. The replacement process could take a couple of years.

The city also hopes to replace temporary workers in the water department with two permanent full-time employees who can respond to calls and emails from residents.

McCarty said the bill Howard received sounds high even with a longer billing period and that she could have a leak.

Who to call

The city of Gulfport says bills will be adjusted based on average water use for residents with higher water bills caused by an extended reading period. For assistance, contact Utility Billing Supervisor Sara Ladner at 228-868-5720, ext. 6416.

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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