Hattiesburg residents may soon head to the polls to determine whether to renew a franchise agreement between Mississippi Power and the city that currently bolsters the city’s tax rolls by approximately $2.5 million per year.
At last week’s Hattiesburg City Council meeting, council members voted to make the proposed ordinance available for public inspection at Hattiesburg City Hall for a period of no less than two weeks beginning June 16. The council would then have the option to set a special referendum to allow voters to decide whether to keep the current agreement, in which Hattiesburg receives 3 percent of the gross revenues of Mississippi Power’s residential, commercial and industrial accounts in the city for 25 years.
“If we don’t renew that in that referendum, we would revert back to what is known as the Mississippi Public Utilities Act, which only generates 2 percent revenue,” said Ann Jones, chief administrative officer for the city. “And that is based off of only the residential and commercial electric sales, rather than the inclusion of what this ordinance would provide, with industrial sales as well.”
Jones said each of the five council members have worked to expand outdoor lighting in their wards, but finding funds for that initiative can be tough. To help in that endeavor, Jones suggested creating a funding source for outdoor lighting expansion with some of the revenue generated through the Mississippi Power franchise agreement.
“You could possibly set a threshold amount of the revenues that could be dedicated to go to the general fund, like what happens now,” she said. “But anything in excess of what that threshold might be set at could be earmarked to go back towards the establishment or expansion of outdoor lighting.”
Mayor Toby Barker said if a referendum was scheduled, it would likely be sometime in September. But because many of the city’s poll workers are older – and therefore more at risk from COVID-19 – the city will be challenged to find enough poll workers to open up every voting precinct.
“So I think we’re working through that,” Barker said. “I know the Legislature is considering some early voting type stipulations for this year, and we’ll see what happens over the next week or two with those.
“But the practicality and logistics of this are something we’re trying to be creative on, to safeguard the health of our workers, election commissioners and the public, while also making sure we get participation.”
Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado pitched the idea of having one polling place, in a large enough venue that could accommodate all the voters.
“And that would cut down on personnel, and hopefully, some of the confusion that we face every time there is an election,” she said.