Bill prohibiting property value-based billing passes Senate, headed to conference committee

(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 1:14 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A bill that would prevent property value-based water billing has passed the Senate, but the measure is still not on its way to the governor’s desk. Rather, it’s going to a conference committee where additional details must be hammered out.

Wednesday, the Senate approved H.B. 698, which would prohibit municipalities from charging for water based on the value of a customers’ home.

A reverse repealer clause was added to the measure prior to its passage, which will force it to go to a conference committee for additional tweaking.

The bill was authored by Rep. Shanda Yates in response to a proposal by Jackson’s court-appointed water manager that would base water fees on property values, rather than the amount of water consumed.

It was presented in the Senate by Sen. Joel Carter, who authored a similar bill that died.

“This is the water bill that we tried to pass earlier in the session, which we did pass down to the House. But this is the House version and there are some changes versus the Senate language,” he said. “There were some concerns raised by several members of the chamber.”

Carter said some concerns were addressed in a strike all amendment introduced, including one that would give cities the ability to issue estimated bills in the case meters are “tampered with, unreadable, or otherwise out-of-order.”

In those cases, customers are to be charged an average based upon their prior usage, and the estimated bills may only be issued for six months.

“Hopefully they have a meter replaced, but yeah, you’ll go to a flat fee if the meter hasn’t been replaced by then,” Carter said.

The legislation also gives municipalities the authority to issue “flat rate” bills, but only if those fees are based on a city’s cost to run its water system.

District 26 Sen. John Horhn asked how you can determine a customer’s average bill if they have been getting erroneous statements. “You’re getting a bill that says you owe $2,000 this month or $1,800 the next month,” he said. “What happens then?”

Carter says in those cases the city is supposed to go a “flat rate.”

District 2 Sen. David Parker, meanwhile, asked what happens in cases where customers simply do not receive bills.

“Would this enable somebody who’s determining this to also get the proper billing to those customers who maybe haven’t received a bill in quite some time?” he asked. “Are you aware of that type of issue?”

Carter says those customers, too, could get flat rate statements.

Residents in the capital city have experienced water billing problems for years.

At a town hall on Tuesday, Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin said his apartment complex, which was constructed in 2016, hasn’t received a bill since it was constructed.

Henifin said issues began under the failed Siemens contract, a company Jackson brought on in 2012 or 2013 to completely overhaul the city’s system. However, the new system never worked, and Jackson has been working to sort out the mess ever since.

Henifin’s proposal would allow the city to bypass the meter system by charging customers a fee based on the true assessed value of their homes.

The proposal has sparked debate among residents, city and state leaders alike, in part, because it would mean higher bills for individuals with more valuable homes.

Yates told WLBT previously she received numerous calls from her constituents saying they didn’t like the idea, and asked whether the state could step in to prevent it. Bills were eventually introduced in both the House and Senate.

Carter said H.B. 698 simply means the utilities “can’t discriminate. There cannot be any discriminatory classification of users,” he said. “So, all the rights for residential customers would have to be based on [use].”

Henifin did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.