Lafayette County Utility Authority Bill dies in state Senate

Published 11:00 am Monday, April 2, 2018

Creation of the Lafayette County Utility Authority is now postponed after the bill was not presented in the state senate.

The bill, SB 3047, made it through the House of Representatives, but sometime between Sunday, March 25 and Monday, March 26, the decision was made by Sen. Gray Tollison (R) of Oxford to not bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The bill would have created the Lafayette County Utility Authority, an entity that would have the power to provide planning, construction and operation of broadband, natural gas, solid waste, stormwater, water and wastewater services to unserviced areas of Lafayette County, according to the bill and the county’s comprehensive plan. It would also have allowed the county to work with its 25 pre-existing rural water systems, as needed.

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District 1 supervisor Kevin Frye said when he found out the bill died on the senate floor, he was “disappointed.”

“Our Board has worked for more than two years to find a way to help areas of the county that struggle with inadequate infrastructure,” Frye said. “The proposed utility authority is a solution that has been successful in other communities and our legislation was crafted specifically to meet the needs of Lafayette County.”

Frye also added that the bill had the full support of the University of Mississippi and City of Oxford, who understood the “positive impact” the authority would have on the people of Lafayette county. The bill would have created a seven-member board with five representatives from the county, one appointed by the City of Oxford and one appointed by the university.

However, some citizens of Lafayette County who are part of rural water systems said the bill’s failure to be brought to a vote might have been a good thing.

Mack Bowles, the president of Denmark Water Association, is one of those people. Bowles has been part of development in both Lafayette and DeSoto counties since the 1960s, and said the attempted creation of a county utility authority was a misguided effort.

“A lot of us people in the county, we feel as though the board of supervisors is overstepping their bounds. They’re talking about Lafayette County like it’s DeSoto County,” Bowles said. “I’m for growth, I’ve seen DeSoto County grow, I’ve lived through it. But 99 percent of DeSoto County is incorporated, and Lafayette’s not like that.”

Michael Caples is an attorney with Butler Snow law firm, which has overseen the implementation of every county utility authority in the state. Lafayette County paid Butler Snow a total of $30,000 for their services regarding the bill. According to Caples, the bill wasn’t brought to a vote due to misinformation received by Tollison from a group of local realtors.

“It was very late Saturday night that the local realtors voted not to support the bill, and we found out about it around noon on Sunday,” Caples said. “This is the first time something like this has happened on a local and private bill.”

SB 3047 was considered “local and private legislation,” and bills of that type generally meet very little resistance at the state level, as the content of the bills only affect the county or communities named in the bill.

However, Caples said there may have also been some outside influence in Tollison’s decision not to present the bill. Specifically, the outside influence may have come from legislators in other counties.

“It’s a gentleman’s agreement at the capital that local and private legislation isn’t something outside counties involve themselves in,” he said. “But in this case, that gentleman’s agreement went out the window.”

Tollison confirmed that the decision not to present the bill was due in part to outside influence from utility providers, realtors and homebuilders, as well as legislators from other counties.

“I thought it was a good bill. I think it’s something that’s needed,” Tollison said. “There was opposition from the chairman from Jackson County, and they have one there and have had some bad experiences. There was also opposition from a senator in DeSoto County, based on his experiences with the DeSoto wastewater utility district. Typically you don’t have issues with local and private bills, but this is a unique case to Lafayette County.”

Tollison also said he thinks there was confusion among the other entities who were initially opposed to the bill, and that hopefully, the supervisors will return with the support of those who initially opposed them.

The North Central Mississippi Realtors Board released a statement through their attorney, Nicholas Brown, which said:

“The North Central Mississippi REALTORS Board has not taken a position on the House Bill. The first time the Board was approached was an email to the Association Executive on the Saturday night before the legislative deadline. The Board takes its role very seriously and has a process, notice and formal meeting before it takes a position on any legislation or regulation. Poor planning does not constitute an emergency for the Board. They have said and will continue to welcome stakeholders and utility representatives to present to them at a meeting so that there can be an informed decision before a formal vote.”

According to Tollison, he received an email opposing the bill from a group of realtors who are part of NCMRB, but he thinks it was due to confusion about the “purpose and need” for the authority.

In spite of the disappointment, Frye said the board of supervisors will pursue the legislation at the next available opportunity. Whether that’s next year or during a special session is yet to be determined.