Biloxi Council members' water stays on, despite unpaid bills

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - If you live in Biloxi and are 30 days late, or more than $20 behind in paying your water bill, the tap can be turned off. The city does work with people who are delinquent, but since the first of the year, 406 accounts have been shut off.

But when two members of the city council fell hundreds of dollars behind in their bills, nothing was done.

Ed Gemmill lives in a home on Waters View Drive in Biloxi. On his water bill, you can clearly see past due notices on the bill, and a past due amount of more than $750.

Gemmill told WLOX News tough times led to this situation.

"I have a wife that's 100 percent disabled, that fell and crushed both of her heels in November of 2009, that was fully employed," Gemmill said. "So I'm raising five children, putting two through school, and I'm making everything good."

Did he receive special treatment because of his position as a Biloxi City Councilman? He doesn't think so.

"I think the city is willing to work with anyone who is willing to go down and show that they are willing to make an effort. And I'm willing to make an effort, and also take care of my kids."

Bill Stallworth owns a rental home on Bohn Street. His bill also clearly shows past due notices, with the account being in arrears by more than $270.  Stallworth does not agree.

"I'm disputing that bill, that particular bill," Stallworth told WLOX News. "The house has been empty for months. I don't know how I can have a $272 water bill. And the truck that they have hung the sign on, we need to move it so they can get to the meter and read it. But at this point, it was more of a guesstimation."

A truck did cover the meter for months, preventing it from being read, or even turned off. That truck has now been moved.

To be fair, when I confronted both council members about their overdue water bills, they were paid in full immediately. But that also brings up another question.

A month ago, the mayor sent both gentlemen a strongly worded letter, urging payment. Councilman Gemmill paid $500 on his account, leaving him still several hundred dollars short. Councilman Stallworth paid nothing.

The letter said the city cannot have the appearance of special treatment. But did the council members receive just that from the water department? The city's public affairs director, Vincent Creel, has a theory.

"The city council approves their annual contract, so they probably felt they were in a tough spot," Creel said.

Employees at the water department agreed.

So why did the mayor feel the need to get involved?

"Well, the mayor was notified by the water department that they had these two accounts that had been delinquent for months. And being that they were council members, they thought that maybe he would have some influence," Creel said.  "So the mayor notified the two council members that these bills need to be paid. At that same time, he told the water department to make sure to treat everybody equally."

But if you're one of the 406 people who have had their water cut off this year, equal may be a matter open to interpretation.

Councilwoman Lucy Denton was also two months behind on a water bill. But that was for a rental property that was occupied by a tenant. The renters were responsible for paying the bill, but had neglected to do so. That bill has now also been paid in full.

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