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Water & Sewer Utility: Who’s Responsible?

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February 19, 2019

Announcer: Farm and Family is a production of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Amy Myers:  Today we're talking about water and sewer utility. Who is responsible? Hello, I'm Amy Myers, and welcome to Farm and Family. Today we're speaking with Dr. Jason Barrett, Mississippi State University Assistant Extension Professor. Jason, when it comes to your water and sewer utility system, who exactly is responsible for the upkeep of it?

Jason Barrett: First of all, we would want to carve out private home wells and home septic system, because those themselves are solely responsible to the person that lives in the home, or is responsible for the home. It's homeowner's responsibility for the installation costs, maintenance, repairs, all of that. Where I'm going with this is when we start talking about the public utilities, the public side of it. You may have different legal entities that are seen as being responsible, or on the books as responsible officials, so you may see municipalities, utility districts, private ownerships, but that utility is responsible for the regulatory compliance, prudent and economical management, ethical operations of utility, but it's incumbent upon the customers to pay the utility bill to that entity to maintain and make it function.

Amy Myers: Okay, and as a citizen or customer, what would my responsibility or obligation be?

Jason Barrett: First of all, if you are leaving in Mississippi in a house, whether it's rented, or owned, or a condo, but if you're really renting, if you're living in a facility, if you have running water and you have a public wastewater system, those utilities must have money to operate. They must have money to function, meet regulatory requirements, pay staff. So, if you are receiving those services, you need to be paying a bill to that utility for those services. Somebody has to pay for those services. So, if you're living in a house, or renting, or whatever, and you are not paying for water or wastewater treatment, somebody else is having to cover that cost, or it's not being covered at all.

Amy Myers: All right. Let's just say I am a renter or homeowner. Is there a way that I can keep on using my sewer or wastewater system, and I'll just not pay my bill?

Jason Barrett: That is very possible, and we've seen some cases like that in Mississippi, where the wastewater utility owner does not own the water utility. So in that sense, most wastewater systems are not installed with cutoffs, so it's very possible for somebody to own a wastewater system and not have cut off. So, if a customer does not pay, in a large sense they're not able to cut that customer off, cut the service off, even though it should. Now, we're seeing some things transpire where cutoffs are being installed so that it can be turned off. But yes, it's possible for people to be on a wastewater system and not pay that bill.

Amy Myers: And that's a huge problem, because the waste water system is not being kept up, and if something goes wrong, and the owner of the sewer utility doesn't have the funding to fix the problem, what happens then?

Jason Barrett: For one, it creates a big headache, you know? It is the utility's responsibility to maintain the system, but if they're not receiving revenue from the customer base, they're not able to maintain as they should. So then, you start seeing regulatory compliance come down from the state level, at least from the state level, to get them into compliance. So again, by the end user not paying for a service they're providing, it puts the utility in a bad spot, and it puts the state in a bad spot because they have to actually regulate on that utility.

Amy Myers: So, the owner of the sewer utility does have to answer to someone?

Jason Barrett: Sure, yes.

Amy Myers: Okay.

Jason Barrett: State regulatory agencies, no doubt. At the first level, state regulatory agencies, yes.

Amy Myers: How can we make things better?

Jason Barrett: Well, to make things better as customers, you know, I'm repeating myself, but if we are receiving a service, we should be paying for that service to someone, to some entity that's an owner or an operator manager of that system. Then also, I would just say be conscious of your utility, because in most utilities they have a large geographic footprint, mainly minimal staff, so if there are issues that you see within a system or a question, let the utility know, because a lot of times they will not know about an issue until a customer calls them, so just be a good steward. Understanding that you're a part of this utility as well. If you see something, let utility to know about it.

Amy Myers:  Today we've been speaking with Dr. Jason Barrett, Mississippi State University Assistant Extension Professor. I'm Amy Myers, and this has been Farm and Family. Have a great day.

Announcer: Farm and Family is a production of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Department: Ext Ctr for Government & Comm Devel

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