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Lafayette County Utility Authority aims to improve infrastructure

Legislation for the new Lafayette County Utility Authority is expected to pass in the next couple weeks, and with that comes the hope of improved infrastructure, according to supervisor Kevin Frye.

The proposed utility authority is the product of 18 months of meetings across the county, during which the county Board of Supervisors listened to residents and heard their concerns about infrastructure in rural communities.

The utility authority will work with existing organizations to provide better water, sewer, wastewater management, broadband internet and natural gas to those in areas with new developments, as well as improve and maintain adequate services for those who have lived in the county for years.

“The situation that we’re in currently, whether it’s sewer, water, natural gas or broadband, a lot of those services are not as available in the county as they should be,” Frye said. “While Oxford is doing annexation and that will help extend their services, I don’t think any of us are under the impression that Oxford’s going to absorb all the growth. The county outside of Oxford city limits will absorb some of this growth and we need to be prepared to handle that responsibly with some standards that make sense for everybody.”

One of those standards involves working with Lafayette County’s 25 rural water associations.

While it may seem as though the county utility authority intends to take over all water operations in the county, attorney Michael Caples, of Butler Snow law firm, said the bill is written in a way that protects the rural water associations. Butler Snow has been part of the creation of every utility authority in the state.

“The big point that we want to make sure everybody understands is that anybody currently providing services can continue, and it’s in the bill that the utility authority cannot provide any of the same services that are currently being provided by somebody in a certificated area,” Caples said. “Where it helps is the areas that are undeveloped. Those will fall under the jurisdiction of the utility authority.”

Should a rural water association decide for any reason they want to cease operations, the bill outlines procedures for transferring operations to the utility authority. In order to do that, both the rural water association and utility authority have to agree to the transfer, both boards have to vote and then each entity has to file a petition with the Public Service Commission.

Water was a main focus in the drafting of the bill, Caples said, because 50 percent of Lafayette County residents are part of a rural water system.

After meeting with representatives from the water associations on March 8, Frye said the response to the news was positive. Due to a boom in development, he said it was important to create the utility authority as a way to keep up with the needs of the county.

“One of the things that is attractive to me about the utility authority, and that the board thought was a big plus, is the fact that it’s local control over things and it allows for us to have Lafayette County residents overseeing how this works, which currently is not how any of these utilities are regulated,” he said. “The big picture is, this gives the county the ability to help. Obviously, I don’t want people to feel like the county is coming in and taking over because that’s not the case.”

One way Caples mentioned the authority will help concerns about water quality in the Punkin water system and capacity issues in Hurricane Creek.

To fix these problems, he said the water systems would have to dig new wells, costing around $1 million each. If the utility authority is created, however, they will be able to provide water to several systems at once, sold at a wholesale rate to each system.

“So, with one tank, you might be able to solve four or five rural water associations’ issues,” Caples said. “Instead of them trying to put together a $1 million to do this, we can put together $2 million and can help them all out, and basically wholesale the water to them. They’d still go out and do their day-to-day billing, reading the meters.”

Another anticipated benefit of the utility authority will be its role in wastewater management.

Currently, developers in the county are limited when it comes to wastewater disposal on their properties. Without a utility authority, the developer is essentially required to also build and maintain their own wastewater system. If a utility authority is in place, the developer can donate those assets to the authority, and operations for the system will be handled by the authority.

The utility authority board itself will consist of seven total members, five appointed by the board of supervisors, one appointed by the mayor of Oxford and one appointed by the University of Mississippi. This collaborative effort, Frye said, will ultimately benefit the taxpayer.

“One of the things we’ve learned over the last couple years as part of the planning process is that if we work together as far as investment in these type of things, if we manage our infrastructure as a group, cooperatively, it saves taxpayer dollars,” Frye said. “It saves resources for other projects.”

The financial aspect of the proposed utility authority is one Caples says is positive for the county as a whole. It will have no impact on the county’s bond rating or its debt service, separating finances but localizing control.

Appointed board members will be unpaid, serve staggered five-year terms and the authority itself will operate as a public body corporate of the state of Mississippi.

The utility authority will not be considered a county department, but a standalone entity of the state. That means it will fall under the Open Meetings Act, public bid laws and other criteria that apply to public organizations.

Donald Scharr, executive director for Harrison County Utility Authority, admits that at the beginning, it might be difficult for residents to see the real benefit of a utility authority. However, he said he’s learned firsthand over 30-plus years of experience that the benefits of such organizations are seen in the long run.

“You begin to get consistency in decision-making. There are some benefits, and they tend to pay off over a long period of time,” he said. “What you have is a system that lasts longer oftentimes, and is better maintained.”

Frye and Caples say the utility authority is a long-term solution that will benefit Lafayette County residents for years to come, and that they hope to one day see improvements in quality and quantity of services.

“This is not a ‘snap your fingers, happen overnight’ thing,” Frye said. “If we’re talking about responsible growth, from the county’s standpoint, we need to make sure that as we grow, we’re doing so with infrastructure that’s adequate for everybody that’s coming into these communities.”