CLARKSDALE – Months have gone by since ratepayers voiced concerns about high utility bills to Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission board members at their regular monthly meetings.
When asked why bills were high, officials noted the abnormally warm weather.
Still feeling unheard and unsatisfied with the response, a group of residents formed their own nonprofit – the Concerned Citizens of Clarksdale – and started hosting community-based meetings at local churches, the city’s auditorium, and even the Coahoma County Courthouse to discuss their next steps.
Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy attended most of the meetings and told residents he would demand answers for them. Taking matters a step further, Espy requested that a representative from the Mississippi Public Service Commission hold a hearing to listen to the ratepayers directly and advise them on possible solutions.
On Oct. 30, local government and elected officials gathered with citizens at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Clarksdale to raise their concerns about their utility bills to Brandon Presley, Public Service Commissioner for the Northern District of Mississippi.
But first, Presley wanted to inform the 50 or so attendees what PSC jurisdiction would and wouldn’t allow them to do.
Since Clarksdale Public Utilities is a municipally-owned utility company, the public service commission does not have full regulatory authority over CPU, said Presley.
Before anyone uttered a complaint, Presley suggested they all do one thing – file a complaint to dispute utility bills of $2,500 or more.
“Under the law, if you have a dispute with a municipally-owned utility like Clarksdale Public Utilities, you have a dispute that’s above $2,500 … our code section says that anyone who files a petition with us … we can investigate those charges.”
Once Presley finished explaining, one after the other, members of the public raised multiple concerns: lack of transparency among the five-member CPU board, unfair billing cycle, implementing new smart meters, not having the fuel adjustment rate on the bill, and rude customer service representatives.
“This is a tremendous burden that one entity of this city has imposed upon us and its unthinkable. I don’t think it has anything to do with the supply, how much we’re paying, or the rate, or these other little things that you’re throwing,” said Ora Shaw, longtime resident. She went on to say that it has to do with a “system” to keep poor people poor.
Curtis Boschert, newly hired general manager for CPU, assured ratepayers he would do his best to help them the best way possible. Adding the fuel adjustment rates on the bill and finding ways to reduce the rates were two priorities for the utility company, he said.
“I said if you give me a little bit of time, not years or nothing like that, but we want to have something in place by the first of the year that you can look too and see that some results are out there for you,” said Boschert. “I’m concerned with the bills you have. The commissioners are concerned with the bills you have. We’re working together.”
Forms were passed out to guests to file their complaints.
“We’re gonna be open, honest, and transparent. Whatever the facts are, that’s what the facts are gonna be,” said Presley. “It may be some things you’re pleased with, it may some things you don’t like, but the facts are the facts.”
Boschert mentioned that there’s a possibility CPU will work with Presley to find out how to resolve issues. Espy added that his administration will work with them, too.
“Brandon Presley has an arsenal of lawyers that are ready to stand at anytime with the citizens of Clarksdale, and when we cannot get a fair, honest opportunity out of CPU, he is the next logical step that regulates public utility companies,” said Espy.
“I have always said I’m a mayor that will never sit back and just kick the can down the road. I want answers for the people of Clarksdale, and I am going to make sure at the end of the day, your concerns will be heard.”
With the promise of answers from officials on the cause of the spike in utility bills, residents are cautiously optimistic.
” I feel like something good is going to come out of this. They know that we know that we can eventually file a lawsuit,” said George Fields, vice-president of the Concerned Citizens of Clarksdale. “We have really been done wrong by CPU in the past.”