By STEVEN NALLEY
The Starkville Board of Aldermen did not act on a public appearance by Hotel Chester owner David Mollendor, who requested adjustments to his water bills after experiencing several days of brown water over three months.
The city’s public works department has received many reports of brown water after a federally mandated chlorine adjustment caused rust particles in Starkville pipes to break off and discolor the water. City officials say despite the discoloration, the water is still potable.
Mollendor said the city should not have charged him for the brown water as he flushed it out of the hotel’s system, and he sought compensation. He said his customers come to his hotel with several expectations, with clean water being among the most basic. When they discover brown water in their rooms, he said, they leave with a poor impression of both the hotel and the city.
“I’m not asking for credit for over 140 staff hours dedicated to flushing out the dirty water and then re-cleaning every fixture during August, September and October filling cycles,” Mollendor said. “I’m not asking for the cost of any lost business.”
Starkville Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill said in her discussions with city officials, she had found nothing the city could do to compensate Mollendor. She said while she had heard inquiries about the brown water from many residents, Mollendor was the only business owner who had inquired.
“We have had (brown water) all over town,” Spruill said, “and it would set a precedent I think that we would find untenable in our ability to sustain our water department enterprise fund if we were to respond to each concern that we have had over the past number of months.”
City Attorney Chris Latimer said state law controls the issue. He said Article IV of the Mississippi Constitution generally prevents municipalities from waiving fees, and further statutes say a municipality may not provide free utilities. However, he said, the board can make a case to the state for an exception if certain facts come to light.
“The (Attorney General) has looked at utility cases and construed those issues to come up with a waiver exception, and there are two criteria to get the waiver, and both of those criteria have to be met,” Latimer said. “First is that unforeseen circumstances have happened, and second is that the customer did not receive the benefit of the service.”
After Mollendor’s request, Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he has had numerous discussions with Public Services Director Doug Devlin on the issue. Wiseman said the hiring of Ronnie W. Betts, Jr. as a crew leader in the water division of public services was one of a series of hires the city will make specifically to resolve the brown water issue.
“Doug assures me this is a problem that is correctable,” Wiseman said. “We, like many communities throughout the United States right now, are experiencing a fair amount of discoloration in our water supply due to the mandates.”
“What I’ve asked Doug to do is take some time intensively over the next few weeks to investigate what other communities around the country are doing to get at this issue so that we make sure we’re doing everything we can as a community to restore the condition of our water,” Wiseman said. “He will be coming to the board within the next month to make a presentation on what his efforts are going to be to get at the condition of our water and what he believes the attainable results of those efforts will be.”
Mollendor proposed solutions of his own. He said he has found particulate matter in the brown water which grows over time, and he believes this matter can provide a shield and nutrient for unhealthy bacteria. For this reason, Mollendor said, the problem merits a city action plan featuring several measures.
“One (measure) is to develop an early warning system to notify at a minimum nursing care and retirement facilities, hospital and medical facilities, transient lodging facilities and people with compromised immune systems upon first receipt of a brown water problem,” Mollendor said. “It seems naïve to state the water supply is safe at the recipient’s end with the level of turbidity that’s being distributed to end users whenever there’s a brown water incidence.”
Mollendor also said the city needs to consider replacing certain rusty pipes if necessary, investigating the sources of the most excessive particle amounts. He said the city should provide assistance to the “needy and handicapped” when they need to flush brown water from their water heaters.
“Homes and businesses might need recommendations on how to minimize further contamination of their water system, for installing their own filtering equipment, for example,” Mollendor said. “Give them some idea of pros and cons and costs so that they’re put in the position of being able to make an objective decision.”