By NATHAN GREGORY
The Starkville Board of Aldermen opted to seek an attorney general’s opinion as to the legalities of instituting a fee for city drainage projects at its Tuesday meeting. The request was made due to the fact there has yet to be an opinion on whether or not an enterprise fund specifically for drainage projects are allowed. It could take up to six weeks to get an opinion on the matter, which means time-sensitive projects, such as the Maple Drive ditch, will not be completed during the upcoming construction season. It would also delay 21 other listed major and minor drainage projects throughout the city.
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey and Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver voiced the need to seek the opinion. Discussion and consideration of prioritizing capital improvement projects for ditches on Northside Drive, Carver Drive and Colonial Drive were tabled due to the decision.
City Attorney Chris Latimer read Miss. Code of 1972 statute 21-27-23, which allows for the borrowing of money by any municipality in the state to “acquire or improve any waterworks system, water supply system, sewerage system ... for the purposes of supplying to the persons ...” and referenced several previous attorney general opinions applying most closely to the statute.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins said despite the drainage problems his ward faces, he would not vote in favor of adding $2.50 to each household utility bill and $5 to each business utility bill because residents and business owners would see no benefits from the fee.
“We don’t need this fee to maintain a water system. What the board is trying to do is ... trying to generate revenue to go to municipal matters. The city of Starkville can legally improve its maintenance ditches, but you have to do it with general funds,” Perkins said. “Don’t try to go through the back door. Our system is making it as it is. There has been no catastrophe for our system. The board, in my opinion, is looking for revenue to pay for capital improvement projects. That’s the bottom line. I’m not going to be selfish about this. I’ve been a proponent for pay as you go ... (The previous attorney general opinions Latimer read) offer me nothing.”
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said the statute is clear in what type of funding is allowed.
“I believe the law is quite clear and unambiguous. The attorney general’s office has twice opined that 21-27-23 ... allows you to create an enterprise fund. That is statute that gives authority to do work on drainage ditches pursuant to the statute,” he said. “Alderman Perkins has spent a great deal of time arguing there is no benefit. I beg to differ. You receive a benefit every time you have a rain event. That is the benefit of service much like service when sanitation (and sewer service) come. This system is almost exactly the same as that.”
Because there was no opinion that spoke directly to the fee addressed in the meeting, Latimer said he was in favor of seeking an attorney general opinion.
“The key is the fact that the Mississippi Supreme Court has not spoken on the particular issue. The Mississippi Court of Appeals has not spoken on the particular issue. (The fact that) no city in the state has stepped out and done this yet sends out a pretty good flag that further clarification would be indicated prior to the city ... doing that,” Latimer said. “I’m glad an AG opinion was requested ... because that gives the city the best legal cover it can get under the circumstances.”
Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn said the issue should be abandoned because raising the fee could compromise low-income households.
“I feel we should forget about this ... $2.50 may not mean nothing to you or me, but a person on no income, low income (or a) fixed income, that means something to them,” he said. “We’re talking about what ditches we’re going to dig ... (and there are residents asking) ‘Am I going to get my medicine or am I going to keep my air conditioning on?’”
In other business, the board also voted 5-2 in favor of allowing the mayor or his designee to negotiate fees and costs with West Brothers Construction for municipal complex development. Perkins and Vaughn were the opposing votes. The measure does not give authority to initiate any such project.
With Perkins and Vaughn again issuing opposing votes, the board agreed 5-2 to issue request for partnership proposals for a police facility and a property management company.
Wiseman said the motion would give the opportunity to ask for proposals as to how renovations can be made to City Hall.