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The mystery of the Lafayette County Utility Authority

By T.J. Ray

Eventually, proof will be found to show that the horrible deed was done by the petite female Eskimo chef trainee. Until that revelation, little is known about the affair, making it a mystery within a conundrum wrapped in an enigmatic puzzle. Thus, without benefit of newspaper accounts or TV news flashes, all that may shed light on this strange brouhaha is a compilation of data gleaned from emails, phone calls and unsubstantiated guessing.

In the beginning, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors (hereinafter the Board) elected to create a Utility Authority, a much-needed organization to encourage and support utility development in those parts of the county without water or sewerage coverage. At no point in the final proposal of the Authority was there any notion of interfering with or taking control of existing utility districts. To the contrary, efforts to aid — even financially if circumstances were right  — their service fee that went with it. Discussion of the proposed development was discussed openly at a number of meetings. As the bill was to be a “private” bill, it was quite reasonable to predict its passage because most legislators do not interfere in private bills from outside their own counties. The Local and Private Committee in the Legislature approved the bill.

In due course, the finished bill was given to Sen. Gray Tollison to sponsor. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed the proposal and endorsed it. All that remained to be done was for Mr. Tollison to put the bill on the agenda for the entire Senate to ratify.

Now for the murky phases of the story. Sometime late last Friday afternoon, March 23, the legislative liaison for the Mississippi Association of Realtors was told of the bill. As it was news to him, he contacted the president of that association, Karen Glass. She communicated with her board, who then made the decision to oppose the bill. Next, the word was sent to the folks at the North Central Mississippi Board of Realtors in Oxford about 8 p.m. Friday.

Sometime on Saturday, its board members voted to endorse the bill and that decision went south to Sen.Tollison.

Ah, but there is often a fly in the ointment. In this case, it was a builder from DeSoto County, a fellow named Massey, who is also in the Legislature. He took the negative side of things and perhaps shared his view with members of that North Central Board. Initially, the 10-member panel elected by the entire NCMBR voted to oppose the utility authority and to sent a letter stating such to Gray Tollison. After MAR decided to not take a stance on the bill one way or the other, and hearing from some of us rank-and-file members here, the panel decided to send a letter instead taking “no stance.”

In any case, that group on Sunday, March 24, informed Mr. Tollison that they were opposed to the bill or had too little information about it to make a definitive choice.

Eventually, the local realtor group told Mr. Tollison that they approved of the creation of a utility authority. The president of that group, Clay Deweese, explained in an interview that his board is completely in support of the bill now that they understand it. Mrs. Glass of the state board echoed the same view.

Hit the pause button for a second: Sometime before all this came to a head, the Board met with folks from all the utility companies in Lafayette County. One of them announced that his group did not need a County Utility Authority and wanted nothing to do with it. It’s conceivable that he or his board let others know of their dissatisfaction.

Now push the play button. Unsurprisingly, Sunday witnessed a number of irate or confused or frustrated phone calls around the county. The supervisors had been blindsided.

When Sen. Tollison was contacted, he indicated that he was hearing of opposition to the bill from people in Oxford. Trying to pin down who called or emailed him to oppose the legislation is not easy. But someone did, the result of which is that that gentleman chose not to put the bill on the agenda to be voted on by the entire Senate, thus killing it for this year.

At some point the change-of-heart vote of the realtor board reached Jackson, but the Senator responded by saying it was then too late to add it to the agenda. Keep in mind that the Senate was in session all day Sunday and most of Monday. There was ample time to have the measure voted on.

As it is, the proposal and the Utility Authority are both in limbo till next year’s Legislature takes it up. And the $30K paid to Butler Snow by Lafayette County got the county nothing in return.

Sometime Sunday, a citizen in the county, whose subdivision has some serious water problems, touched base with Sen. Tollison. Here is the email that came back to him:

“I am for the county wide utility district and advocated for it in the Senate. Unfortunately, there has been confusion locally and at the Capitol about the purpose of and need for the utility district that led some to be opposed to the bill. The legislature is about to adjourn in the next few days for the year and there is not enough time this session to educate members of the legislature and organizations such as the homebuilders and the realtors about the need for the utility district in Lafayette County. The best chance to pass this bill is to use the rest of the year to educate and emphasize the important need for this bill in our county to the legislature and other interested parties and to come back in January and attempt to get it passed. I can assure you I am doing all I can to get the Utility Authority passed. I appreciate you contacting about this issue.”

Early Monday morning, March 26 one of the supervisors spoke with Tollison by phone. He was told again that it was too late to submit the bill.

Guesses, surmises and wild stabs — all of this may have been triggered by one of those session between the supervisors and water association managers.

Remember at that meeting one of the managers indicated that his group wanted nothing to do with it. The local realtors who dealt with Tollison shot themselves in the foot by aiding in this squelching of a bill that had the potential of making unused and unserved land in Lafayette County possibly increase dramatically in value.

Perhaps I might, in time, have more information about the thinking and decisions of the local realtors, but for now I’ve been told I had to deal directly with their attorney. Wonder what the secret is? I do.

Finally, may I share a sentence from one of the players in this drama. He said, “I have also been told from one of our state elected officials, that the bill was very poorly written and that the county needs to take a little more time in crafting the next bill. This was his opinion and was stated to me in confidence.”

That is a very strange perception of the bill as it was written by Butler Snow, a firm with multiple experiences aiding in the formation of public utility authorities. Curiosity nags at me to know the identity of the mysterious “state elected” official.

Just as I was sealing the envelope to send this to the paper, along came one more email, the impact of which was to contradict a number of points that had been made to me by folks I spoke with over the weekend. I’ll add it here for you to make what you will of it: “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.”

Before anyone hires a hitman to silence this amateur investigator, let me show my hand. I am a citizen of the State of Mississippi. I am a citizen of Lafayette County. I am a home owner. Last — and not irrelevant — I am a customer of a water utility, Punkin Water Association.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.