Arnold Line Water awaits PSC

The head of the Arnold Line Water Association in Lamar County said he had expected to hear from the Public Service Commission by now in the PSC’s case against the water association.

C.R. Dixon, president and director of Arnold Line, said Monday he has been waiting on the PSC to give a decision in the case since he testified Jan. 19 in Jackson. At the hearing, Dixon defended the water association’s legal position after not complying with the advised changes set out by the PSC in November 2016.

“I keep telling the PSC, ‘You don’t have authority over us. We have membership and we’re a tax-exempt non-profit,’” he said in a telephone interview Monday.

In the Arnold Line case, hearing officer Stephanie Taylor is considering evidence from the hearing before making a decision. Taylor is a senior PSC attorney who was appointed the hearing officer on Nov. 1, 2016.

The PSC opened a case regarding Arnold Line Water Association and issued the Association a letter advising changes to be made to their rules and regulations in order to comply with the commission’s rules and Mississippi Code. The water association has since refused to comply.

Dixon told the Public Service Commission on Nov. 10, 2016, that the group would not follow the PSC’s request for changes.

“We are sorry, but our board voted unanimously at our meeting on Nov. 8 not to change our users agreement or policies and procedures,” Dixon wrote in response to the PSC request. “Our new attorney will be in touch with you.”

Anna Rush has been hired by the water association to represent it in the hearing.

The Public Service Commission notice that was sent to Arnold Line Water Association last November said the association should not require customers to produce their entire bill or account number to pay a bill. The PSC service rule states, “Each utility shall upon request give its customers such information and assistance as may be reasonable in order that customers may obtain efficient and reasonable service.”

Dixon said reports that the association had received 150 complaints among the 25,000 customers. However, Dixon asserted that only 24 complaints were received from customers who had their water cut off after not paying their bills.

The Public Service Commission also said the water association must include a notice that customers can file a complaint with the PSC if they don’t agree with the association’s decisions. The Mississippi Code statute that is being referred to by the water association also is not current, the PSC said.

Dixon’s remarks came on the heels of a 5-3 ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court on Feb. 9 that the PSC did not have the authority to adopt a 2014 rule requiring deposit suspension by rural water associations, and that Mississippi law prohibits the PSC from "making rules that regulate the rates of the Water Association's members."

In the Supreme Court ruling against the Public Service Commission, Dixon said the case has been going on for about two years.

“The Mississippi Rural Water Association filed these charges against the Mississippi Public Service Commission,” he said. “The Supreme Court called it because of spousal abuse. The Public Service Commission wanted to pass a rule that if a customer came in and claimed spousal abuse, we couldn’t charge a deposit, no membership fees and if they stayed there for six months and they owed $300, I could charge $30 and write the rest of it off.”

Kirby Mayfield, CEO of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, said the opposition to the regulation was not about domestic violence victims.

“"Our member water associations are customer-owned and serve their own communities and are governed by the Mississippi Non-Profit Corporation Act,” he said. “There are hardship provisions for those in need, and more so, water association members and employees often take money from their own pocket to help neighbors in need. We support assistance to victims of domestic violence and other disadvantaged people and families."

Mayfield said the PSC overstepped its legal authority.

“This is the same type of overreach we see in federal agencies: the creation of rules and regulations which go beyond statutory authority and burden citizens and organizations,” he said. “We're gratified the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed. We will continue to fight for the rights of our members against government overreach to ensure they are free to provide safe, clean and affordable water services to their customers.

"While the PSC went about the issue the wrong way and beyond its authority, we do recognize the challenges faced by victims of domestic violence and other hardships and continue to address them on a case-by-case basis,” Mayfield concluded.