Former Water Department Head Talks About Gulfport's Funding Crisis - - The News for South Mississippi

Former Water Department Head Talks About Gulfport's Funding Crisis

A company called Optech does Gulfport's water and sewer work. Before the private company got hired, Gulfport's water department was headed by Boyd James.

"I took over a fund in 1992 that was $500,000 in the hole," James said. "Without raising water and sewer rates, without doing anything except a good management policy, we were able to come out of the hole and have a surplus."

But audited city records indicate the $1.5 million surplus in 1999 became a $2.6 million debt one year later, after the city privatized the water department.

"Privatization occurred while I was gone," Gulfport Mayor Ken Combs said. "And I still haven't made a full analysis on whether it's completely good or completely bad."

Whatever the reason, Gulfport leaders admit they don't have enough money to begin $123 million worth of water and sewer improvements. "I'm thinking it's just tragic. It's a sad situation that Gulfport has gotten into this position," Boyd said.

Gulfport's elected leaders think they have three ways they can come up with enough money to fix the water and sewer problems. They can ask the legislature for permission to institute a one cent sales tax, though that's not likely. They can raise water rates, though the mayor has already said he'll veto that. Or they can raise property taxes.

The former water department head sat in his office and said there's a fourth option.

"In tough times, the way to get out of tough situations, you have to make tough choices," said James. "They need an accountant. They need an auditor. They need someone who can help."

Gulfport leaders said they need a lot of help, trying to pay for water and sewer projects that must be completed.

WLOX News called Optech's Atlanta office Friday, to see if the company wanted to talk about Gulfport's funding problems. But nobody returned our calls.

So what are Gulfport residents saying about the city's current financial situation? WLOX News heard from three people who had three different opinions about how Gulfport should fix its water and sewer troubles.

Darryl Screven questioned what Gulfport is doing with the casino and sales tax revenues it collects.

"The city isn't being managed correctly by those that are there," Screven said. "We constantly are voting and putting the same people back in the same positions. And it's not being run right."

Theo Lyons said he'd support any plans the city comes up with to fund the water and sewer improvements.

"Whatever it takes," Lyons said, "I would be willing to go along with whatever the program called for."

One viewer e-mailed WLOX News and said Gulfport can save a million dollars by cutting out its charitable donations.

That's one of the options the adminstration may consider as it looks for a way out of the budget crisis. The Gulfport City Council gave the mayor a few weeks to come up with a new funding game plan for the water and sewer department.

By Brad Kessie

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