Other Opinions

SAMANTHA D. ABELL: The rising costs when utility regionalism ignores localism

Samantha Abell
Samantha Abell

Per state law, the city of Gautier contracts with a local wastewater service authority that has raised customer rates 10 out of the last 11 years.

As city manager, I wish I could tell you that these rate increases will lead to a stronger utility system -- one that will ultimately promote economic growth.

Alarmingly, though, I cannot. Neither can the mayor or city council of Gautier or the city governments of our neighboring cities. In fact, we can't tell you exactly why rates continue to rise. Unfortunately, it is our legal obligation to pass these increases from the Jackson County Utility Authority along to families in our community.

That is because a well-intentioned and seemingly reasonable post-Katrina effort to regionalize our water utility districts on the Gulf Coast has morphed -- at least in Jackson County -- into a nearly invisible but extraordinarily powerful new quasi-branch of government: the Jackson County Utility Authority.

The JCUA has total discretion in determining the amount it bills Gautier and other cities for water service. It also has the statutory authority to control and slow new economic development -- the very thing it was created to promote -- by controlling the issuance of new water and building permits, and setting fees to developers.

Water use cut, salaries rise

The results are clear. At the 10-year anniversary of the JCUA, three local cities contract out their public works operations. The JCUA provides water and wastewater treatment, but doesn't operate or maintain the system's lines. It is citizens who feel the squeeze. The JCUA tells us that they bill based on wastewater gallons treated. Yet, cities' water usage has decreased. The JCUA receives 85 percent of its revenue from Jackson County's cities, and yet while we were trimming budgets, the JCUA has added over a million dollars in salaries since August 2014.

The authority has also borrowed $27 million through the sale of bonds -- despite a request from all four cities to slow down so that we might understand the rationale and long-term plan for this debt. Included in the bond are nearly $2 million for new computer systems and millions more for land and utility acquisitions.

As a result of this authority, Gautier cannot improve its own water capacity. We are 29 years young, with comparatively healthy infrastructure. We pump half our water capacity from our water wells on daily average. And yet, we could face a moratorium on development if we don't add water capacity. The catch: Because the JCUA has the ability to sell Gautier water, we must purchase it. Gautier is prohibited from improving its own water capacity, since the JCUA's mission is regionalism.

In recent years, Gautier has refinanced old debt, which the city inherited upon incorporation and annexation, and utilized savings to make system improvements such as radio-read water meters and remote monitoring, as well as a new water filtration plant lauded by environmentalists. At the same time, the JCUA has constructed water lines within Gautier's jurisdiction and requires the city to submit all development permits to the agency for review and fees. Now we must purchase water from the JCUA, or face a building moratorium.

City managers and elected leaders in all four of our cities have diligently sought explanations and asked for a voice in the Jackson County Utility Authority management and deliberations. Many of us support the concept of regionalization of our utility systems. We understand that some investments are absolutely necessary. Yet, our repeated requests for information -- if for no other reason than so we can explain to you why your bills are going up -- are treated by the Jackson County Utility Authority as meddling intrusions.

Cities hire engineer

The leadership of our four cities came together recently and out of a rising sense of alarm for our citizens, we hired an outside, independent engineering firm to help us understand this continuous effort to increase citizens' water bills. We hoped the Authority's management would be open to the opportunity to disclose to fellow experts the Authority's plans and accomplishments. Instead, the JCUA curtly replied in an email to one city attorney that our engineering firm must file a "Freedom of Information Request" for any information.

How disappointing and unfortunate.

What can we do? It's true that each city has appointed a representative to the Authority's seven-member governing board. But once that six-year appointment is made, there is no recourse.

And, this is unique to Jackson County.

In Harrison County and Hancock County, the mayors actually serve on the authority, according to state law. In Stone and Pearl River, the appointees to their authority can be recalled by the cities that put them there. But in Jackson County, the appointments are for set terms, and elected officials -- those who are most accountable to ratepayers -- are specifically prohibited from serving on the body that will ultimately determine water rates.

The citizens in the cities of Gautier, Moss Point, Pascagoula and Ocean Springs pay the water bills to support the Jackson County Utility Authority. We hope the Jackson County Utility Authority will consider working with us and provide a meaningful level of transparency and accountability, so that we can all have full confidence that our taxes are being used prudently.

Contact Samantha D. Abell, Gautier city manager, at 228-497-8000 or sabell@gautier-ms.gov