June 10, 2017 10:14:04 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi's Supreme Court says the state's utility regulator cannot force rural water associations to delay deposits for domestic violence victims hooking up new utilities.
The court ruled 5-3 Thursday that such deposits are part of rates and the Public Service Commission, under state law, can't regulate the rates of most nonprofit water providers.
"We find that the (commission) lacks statutory authority to adopt any rule regulating the rates of nonprofit water utility associations and corporations," Chief Justice William Waller Jr. wrote for the majority.
The rule requires utilities to delay collecting deposits from domestic violence victims for 60 days.
The law says the Public Service Commission can't regulate the rates of a water association whose board members are elected or appointed by county supervisors. The commission ruled that a deposit isn't a rate, but the water associations, argued that definition was too narrow. Waller agreed, writing that previous precedent had found that anything that could cause rates to go up can be regulated like a rate.
Waller wrote that the commission's "attempt to regulate the payment of customer deposits, which are embedded in the rate-making process, would do more than impact the timing of payment."
Associate Justice Leslie King, writing for the three dissenting members, argued that the majority was construing "rate" too broadly.
Justices handed down a new opinion Thursday to make clear that the commission could regulate the deposits for privately owned for-profit utilities and for electric cooperatives. Commission Chairman Brandon Presley, a Democrat representing the northern third of the state, said commissioners will enter a new order complying with the court during a June 21 meeting. He said the new opinion is a partial victory.
The Public Service Commission has faced pushback in recent years over attempts to regulate water associations and electrical cooperatives. Commission intervention in a dispute at the North Lee Water Association near Tupelo led to lawmakers passing a 2013 law saying the commission had no power to regulate internal affairs of any water association, electric cooperative or municipal utility.
On Tuesday, commissioners voted that the Arnold Line Water Association, serving areas in and around Hattiesburg, must change some of its rules governing customer payments, give customers more notice of water cutoffs, and seek separate approval of agreements to cut off water when customers don't pay sewer bills to separate entities. But Arnold Line President C.R. Dixon said he believes commissioners acted without authority.
"I'm going to stick to my guns and I'm not going to comply with them," he told the Hattiesburg American.
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