Meridian Star


September 23, 2012

Regional water district proposal has merits, but questions remain

MERIDIAN —     Lauderdale County residents who showed up at a Tuesday afternoon public hearing of the Meridian City Council voiced strong opposition to the city's proposal to create a regional water district.

    We are not surprised.

    The proposal, on which the city has yet taken no action, would create the East Central Mississippi Regional Joint Water and Wastewater Management District.

    Although the city has said it could confine the district to city limits, a draft resolution states that, "The territorial limits and boundaries of said district shall be composed of the geographical area Lauderdale County as defined in Miss. Code Ann. 19-1-75."

    Furthermore, the resolution states that the Meridian City Council shall levy a special tax authorized by the proposed water district's board of commissioners "not to exceed 2 mills on the taxable property in such district."

    The funds would be used for the "preparation and implementation of the District's Water Management Plan," according to the resolution.

    The draft of the resolution then would allow the water management district, if created as proposed, to levy up to 2 mills in taxes on all Lauderdale County residents, which includes those who reside within the city limits of Meridian.

    No wonder some stand opposed. That said, the public hearing served the purpose intended — it allowed those who could be impacted an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

    At issue is the city's wastewater treatment plant built to meet loose environmental regulations established 30 years ago. The Department of Environmental Quality was going to fine the city $75,000 for violations in the operation of the plant, but that amount was reduced to $52,500 in October 2011.

    The council agreed to pay $26,250 directly to DEQ and, as part of the settlement, agreed to use the remaining $26,250 to develop a plan for a regional wastewater and water utility district.

    "We're going to need to either rebuild or build a new treatment system," council member George Thomas said at a meeting earlier this month. "The estimated cost of that is somewhere between $30 million and $50 million. If the city has to do that, it will wipe out our bonding capacity."

    There are valid arguments for creating such a district.

    The city has rightly pointed out that upgrades to water and sewer infrastructure could boost economic development and provide developers the opportunity to connect new subdivisions to water and sewer. Most developers and industries want access to reliable water and sewer.

    Both the DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency are encouraging regional water and sewer districts and stricter federal guidelines are likely sometime in the future.

    In 1998, the EPA told all states to set limits on nutrient pollutants in waterways and warned that if they didn't, they would do it for them. The pollutants, which cause algae blooms in waterways, typically come from fertilizers, septic tanks, wastewater and manure that enter lakes and rivers.

    In order to comply with the standards, some states are considering mandatory inspections of septic tanks, which can cost homeowners thousands of dollars.

     Water contamination from faulty septic tanks and storm water runoff is a problem that all states, counties and cities alike will have to address eventually.

    On the other hand, a tax of up to 2 mills could create an additional burden on residents and business owners already struggling in a stagnant economy.

    County residents, many of whom bought outside city limits to avoid paying additional city taxes, could argue that the city's wastewater infrastructure is not their problem.

    We will leave the merits of the proposal for others to decide.

    Our problem is that there are too many unanswered questions about the city's proposal.

    For starters, why weren't officials with other agencies informed about the proposal earlier in the process?

    Meridian officials have said they would like Lauderdale County and the town of Marion to partner in creation of the district.

    Officials with Marion and Lauderdale County have said they have not been officially approached about the proposal.

    In the city's defense, Thomas said the city invited each rural water association in the county to a meeting to explain the process but, "Three of them showed up out of 15."

    As potential partners, Marion and Lauderdale County should have been included in the planning from the start.

    City officials have said all along that if Lauderdale County and Marion opted out, they could create the water district within city limits on their own.

    At Tuesday's meeting Marion attorney James Welch pointed out that state statute governing creation of water and wastewater districts "requires the cooperation of two or more government entities consisting of a county and a municipality."

    Which means Meridian will need Lauderdale County's approval to make the proposed district a reality, even if the district boundaries are confined to city limits.

    The attorney hired by the city of Meridian to work on a plan to get the city's water and wastewater in compliance confirmed after the meeting that Lauderdale County will have to sign off on the proposal.

    Why has the city been saying they can go it alone?

    Why did Thomas attempt to cast doubt on information about the district printed in The Star?

    Thomas, when questioned by audience members at Tuesday's meeting about quotes attributed to him in the The Star, twice replied the questioner would have to "ask The Star."

    The inference was that the paper had gotten the information wrong. When asked by a reporter afterwards if there was any incorrect information in the articles or quotes attributed to him, Thomas said there was not.

    We also took issue with council member Mary Perry's remark in the meeting that, "This is a hearing, but it think it's only fair that we not be asked questions…"

    Supposedly the intent of the meeting was to provide answers.

    Perry also said, "We have been repairing (the city's wastewater treatment plant) and we have repaired. We have spent millions…as of now, we're not under any faults with DEQ."

    Does that mean the city no longer needs a plan for a regional water/wastewater district?

    These are questions we will ask.

    For opponents the main issue it seems is one of trust. For all we know, however, the city's motives are pure.

    But their information has been incomplete and, on one point at least, inaccurate. We hope the city does a better job of fostering cooperation and providing answers in the future so the proposal can be decided on its merits and not derailed by suspicion before it ever gets off the ground.

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