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Mississippi city avoided loss of electrical service

Seeing an electric bill of $ 450 to $ 600 no longer scares Patricia Young of Itta Bena, Mississippi, a town of about 1,800 people in the Mississippi Delta.

In some months, the bill for Ms. Young’s home and the daycare she owns can total close to $ 1,000.

“It’s just gotten to the point where light bills are more than your mortgage,” she says.

Despite concerns from Ms Young and other residents about their costly bills, the city has been threatened with a potential loss of electricity after racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with its electricity supplier during over a decade.

The city – which buys the electricity wholesale and then sells it to residents – owed the wholesaler, the Mississippi Municipal Energy Agency, more than $ 800,000 in August. The agency sent a letter that month to the Mississippi Civil Service Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities, saying it would step down as the city’s electricity supplier from here. December 1 due to unpaid debts.

Concern over the potential loss of electricity, reported by the Associated Press and the Greenwood Commonwealth, prompted the state commission to get involved, even though it has no direct jurisdiction over the power system in the city, said Brandon Presley, a member of the commission. (Because Ita Bena owns its electrical system, the responsibility lies with the city, not the commission, to regulate its tariffs.)

After the recent state intervention, the threat of a power cut seems to have been ruled out for now.

Some residents have complained that Itta Bena’s struggle to keep the lights on is the result of mismanagement of the municipal electricity system by city leaders. The city’s economic health has also been undermined by a drop in the number of residents and businesses.

In a public hearing Thursday, the state commission pledged to keep the city lights on and work with its leaders to transfer control of Itta Bena’s electrical service to a Mississippi utility. .

The move, which city officials approved on Friday, will allow the commission, rather than the city, to regulate the rates customers pay.

“My ultimate goal in this regard is that the citizens of Itta Bena get a stable and reliable source of energy that is affordable, which brings benefits to the community and avoids any kind of looming crisis like this,” Mr. Presley.

The possibility of losing electricity has alarmed residents, many of whom say they have done their best to pay soaring bills amid a pandemic that has made their financial situation even more dire.

“Why should we have a power outage if we pay our utility bills?” Ms. Young said.

She had sent a petition, signed by about 300 residents, and copies of utility bills, to the Mississippi State Auditor’s office, urging it to look into the city’s electrical service and rates.

Since moving to Itta Bena with her husband 23 years ago, Birdia Williams’ electricity bill has skyrocketed. In July, she paid around $ 600, which puts her in a difficult financial situation with her husband.

“In a pandemic, it was quite difficult for us,” Ms. Williams said. “We had to choose between shopping for groceries, paying doctor’s bills, paying hospital bills. We had to choose between that and pay the electric bill. “

The city’s electrical system has been a point of contention for years, according to Thelma Collins, a former mayor whose third term ended in 2017. Ms Collins said during her tenure she worked to reduce the debt of the city. city ​​to its electricity supplier. , but these improvements had been reversed in the years following his departure.

JD Brasel, current mayor of Itta Bena, did not respond to a request for comment, but said during Thursday’s hearing that the city would not be able to pay its debt before the deadline of the 1st. December which had been assigned to him.

The city’s ordeal with its electrical system is proof to the residents of how much Itta Bena has changed over the years.

“I have seen racial and economic change,” said Ms. Williams, 64. “When we started moving in, it looked like a lot of white people started moving.”

From 2000 to 2010, the city’s white population fell to around 10%, from around 20%, according to census data. Blacks now make up about 90% of the city’s population, and the city’s median household income is just over $ 20,000.

Founded in the mid-1800s by Benjamin G. Humphreys, a plantation owner who later served as governor of Mississippi from 1865 to 1868, Itta Bena became known for its production of cotton and other crops. After the abolition of slavery and reconstruction, sharecropping emerged in the city and throughout the Mississippi Delta, fueling poverty among blacks who rarely benefited from their labor.

Today, businesses have fled the city center, leaving abandoned buildings in their wake. Residents often travel to the nearby town of Greenwood, Mississippi, for their groceries and other essentials, Ms. Young said.

A solution has yet to be found regarding the city’s remaining debt to its electricity supplier, the main concern – keeping the lights on – having been resolved for now.

The state intervention brought some solace to residents, who said they never imagined their city would risk being left in the dark.

“We just want to see the change,” Ms. Young said.

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