Mississippi water utilities fight plan to delay deposits for domestic abuse victims

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Water utilities said Tuesday that the Mississippi Public Service Commission doesn't have the power to force them to allow victims of domestic abuse to hook up utilities without immediately paying deposits. And some representatives said it wasn't a good idea anyway, saying the commission was singling out "a special group" that could cause other ratepayers to pay more and that private charities could take care of victims' financial needs.

Mississippi's proposal is modeled after similar measures in Louisiana and Texas. It would allow people certified as victims by certain agencies to delay paying deposits for 60 days.

"It singles out a special group which flies in the face of what public utilities are supposed to do, which is treat everyone equally," said Jim Herring, a lawyer for the Mississippi Rural Water Association. "There are plenty of organizations out there to help people."

The comments came in a public hearing on the proposed waiver, and drew a sharp rebuke from Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.

"The language about victims of domestic violence being a special group is offensive," Presley said. "I want you to put your petty power plays of your water boards aside for just a minute to look at this as something that would help people in Mississippi."

A Democrat who represents the Northern District on the three-member PSC, Presley proposed the measure as a way to help people get out of dangerous situations. He's being supported by Attorney General Jim Hood.

"I wish there were plenty of resources available to victims of domestic violence, but that's just not the case," said Crystal Utley, a lawyer for Hood's office.

Commissioners didn't act Tuesday and said they would consider the comments before voting on the rule, possibly modifying their plan. But Presley and Southern District Commissioner Steve Renfroe, who doesn't identify with a party, both signaled clear support for moving ahead.

After the Presley issued subpoenas inquiring into the operation of the North Lee County Water Association in 2011 after allegations of mismanagement, lawmakers passed a law that says the commission has no power "over the governance, management or other internal affairs" of a water association. In comments filed with the commission opposing the domestic abuse proposal, multiple water associations cited the law. They also said that deposits were key to their financial stability, and questioned whether waiving them would also mean waiving other fees.


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