Rising water bills in the future for Biloxi residents

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Some Biloxi residents may feel like their money is going down the drain because of a significant increase in their water bills. The city says the rising costs are in place to pay off a debt.

Carol Sheeks has been living in her Biloxi home for five years. She says throughout that time, she has never seen a water bill as high as her most recent billing statement.

"My last bill was $86 and I'm retired. My husband is disabled so, it cuts a big chunk out of your budget," Sheeks said. "I was used to paying a little, and then all of a sudden I couldn't believe what I saw."

City officials say that's because of a "surcharge" which reflects funds the city borrowed from the waste water authority in 2006.

A group, made up of five mayors and two Harrison County supervisors borrowed $130 million, of which various cities then borrowed a percentage of that. Biloxi requested nearly 44 percent of those funds to upgrade the city's water system. Now it's simply time to pay it back.

"We had a sufficient fund balance to subsidize that shortfall in 09 and 10, but we didn't this year. At the end of last year we had to adjust the rates to recover the costs of the shortfall that the revenues didn't cover," said Director of Administration David Staehling.

City officials say they understand the citizens' frustrations, however the rates that Biloxi residents are now paying are the same rates that other cities have had to pay for quite some time.

"Water rates in other cities were already high. If you look at the water rates in Biloxi, they have always been artificially low. So you've got two things. You've got the new surcharge from the Harrison County Utility Authority and the second thing is increased use of water," City of Biloxi Spokesman Vincent Creel said.

City leaders say the actual coast of water has not increased, there's just an added charge to cover the debt the city owes.

Until Biloxi is able to get past the hurdle, officials say the best thing for homeowners to do is manage their water usage.

"I know it's difficult. You want to water your lawn or you've got a swimming pool for your grandchildren and all these things that you do, washing your car and minimizing your household usage. That's the best way to keep it down," Staehling said.

"I don't know how it can be done, but you can't be billing with gas $5 a gallon and the water $86, food. The basic necessities of life, you can't afford it anymore," Sheeks said.

County supervisors say despite the fact that the bills refer to the increase as a "surcharge," the funds are in fact for debt repayment.

Later this year, the city plans to pay a principal reduction of $3.5 million to reduce the loan balance. There are also plans to obtain a fixed rate which would cap the interest costs on an annual basis.

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