Following dozens of complaints from residents via social media and in person, officials from the City of Petal are addressing concerns with what is commonly referred to as the city’s water bill, which actually features fees for four total services.
In particular, a recent post on the Petal Neighborhood Community Facebook page has received more than 300 comments, with residents stating they have been forced to pay bills ranging from $100 to $5,000 for a month’s worth of service. Mayor Tony Ducker said the reason for the seemingly high bills is because of $15 million in bonds that was taken out several years ago to pay for sewer upgrades, which will be paid back in 2028 and 2034.
“There’s tons of issues, and you can ‘Monday morning quarterback’ that all day long, but we’ve got (that debt) now,” the mayor said. “I often say that we walk in the shoes of those that have gone before us, and this is one of those cases.
“While I hope to leave (the residents) in a better position than what we are today, they will inherit stuff from us, and that’s just one of the issues. The truth of the matter is, by the time we get near those (2028 and 2034) dates, we’re going to need to pump a bunch of money into our system to make it viable.”
Of the four services on the City of Petal bill – water, garbage, sewer service and sewer treatment – sewer service is the most expensive.
The bills feature a minimum water charge of $13.25 for 0 to 2,000 gallons of water used. There is a $6 charge for each additional 1,000 gallons used; if over 50,000 gallons are used, that fee drops to $5 per 1,000 gallons.
If more than 100,000 gallons of water are used, the fee drops to $4.50 per 1,000 gallons.
Sewer service is a $33 flat fee, sewer treatment is a $12 flat fee and garbage service is an $18.75 flat fee, for a total minimum amount of $74.
Ducker said if current charges are not paid by the 21st of each month, 15 percent of the total bill is charged as a late fee. If charges remain unpaid on the 16th of the next month, service is cut off and a $75 reconnect fee is charged.
At that time, all charges must be paid to get serviced restored. All bills are mailed out on the 1st of every month.
For comparison, the City of Hattiesburg charges a $75 new customer deposit. Bills feature an $18.52 minimum charge for water, an $18.52 minimum charge for sewer and a $17 garbage rate, for a total minimum bill of $54.04.
That minimum amount is based on a 0 to 3,0000-gallon consumption. Additional cost per 1,000 gallons is $5.58 for water and $5.58 for sewer.
“What happened is, a lot of these systems were put in 50, 60 years ago, and that’s usually how long those things last, the materials that are under the road that are put in,” Ducker said. “Over time, there’s usually not the resources put into that area, and Lord knows when I leave there will be sewer projects that need to be done.”
Fortunately, the city is expected to receive $2.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill issued by the federal government to speed up the United States’ recovery from the negative economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Temporary guidance from the Department of Treasury, which has stipulated the funding allocations will remain available through Dec. 31, 2024, states that funds from the American Rescue Plan Act can be used for improvements to water, sewer and broadband Internet.
Of the $2.6 million, the City of Petal already has received $1.3 million, with the other half of the funds expected to come in early next year.
“If I had $20 million, I could find places for it,” Ducker said. “I don’t want to mislead somebody and say, ‘hey, we’re not going to do anything, and we’re going to wait until 2028 and 2032, and everybody’s bill is going to get cut in half.’
“I just don’t see that with the federal requirements that keep coming down that are getting stricter and stricter. If you look at other sewer bills around south Mississippi, we’re probably a couple of bucks higher than we could be and should be, but we’re not way, way out of line. One thing that does hurt us, compared to some other, larger cities for instance, is that us being a residential community, we don’t have a lot of commercial development that allows for an increase in cash flow, so basically our rooftops are bearing the load of all of this.”
City customers also have addressed issues with incorrect bills being printed; for example, residents have claimed that their bills have stated a much higher amount than what is actually owed. However, Ducker said of the approximately 4,000 customers that are billed monthly, city officials see a better than 97 percent pay rate, which means that more than 3,800 customers pay their bills without issue.
“If you shrink that down, we even have less than a 1 percent complaint rate,” he said. “So I do understand that social media magnifies some of these issues, so I know that the system by and large works, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not in there trying to improve on that.
“You don’t throw the whole system away when, for the most part, we’re getting it right.”
Several residents also have addressed concerns with customer service at the water department office, which features a staff of three. Ducker said he has heard those concerns and is taking steps to make the department more customer-friendly.
“We’ve got a sign up that says ‘one of our core values is customer service,’ so I tell the employees in there not to go back and forth on social media,” he said. “Also, we’re the ‘smiling’ water department.
“Legally, though, we can’t give away water – we can’t do that. But at the same time, this allows me to have a conversation with everybody that works in that department – and that’s from the person that’s out there putting the meter in, to the person up there in the office – about how we’re going to be friendly and how we’re going to be customer service-oriented.”
In addition, residents’ water leaks are addressed at nearly every meeting of the Petal Board of Aldermen. Every resident is given one lifetime adjustment to credit leaks or mistakes that may drive bills up.
“We usually assume, on that situation, that you’ve got a leaking toilet,” Ducker said. “It may not be constantly leaking, but then it’s going down the sewer drain, so obviously it wouldn’t be getting your yard wet. If somebody brings a flapper, we can go back and say, ‘hey, they fixed it;’ that gives us the legal requirement. Twelve years ago, there was no forgiveness, so that part of the meeting would never have taken place.
“We felt that a lot of us had gotten elected over how high the bills had gotten so quickly, instead of it being phased in like in Hattiesburg. So we felt like if we can legally do it, and we can determine as a board that you didn’t use the water, we could make arrangements so you wouldn’t have to pay the portion that we deem you didn’t use. Anything else, legally, our hands are tied.”