It could be lights out for Itta Bena come December.
The town’s wholesale electricity provider has informed a Mississippi regulator that it will be cutting off service to the municipally owned utility because of its chronic failure to pay its bill in full.
In a series of tweets Tuesday, Brandon Presley, the Northern District public service commissioner, said Itta Bena owes the Municipal Energy Agen-cy of Mississippi around $800,000 and has been in arrears since the 1990s. He said the town faces having its supply of electricity from MEAM end on Dec. 1.
“City electric departments are NOT under the jurisdiction of the PSC, therefore this failure falls on the city elected officials who haven’t paid,” Presley said on Twitter.
He said, however, that he would try to work out a solution for the estimated 800 customers who get their electricity from the municipally owned utility. Presley said he would be calling a meeting, tentatively set for Oct. 29, in Itta Bena between town officials, Entergy Mississippi and Delta Electric Power Association in hopes of finding a new provider.
Presley said he believes MEAM is ready to completely cut ties with Itta Bena.
“My understanding is that MEAM has just simply drawn a line,” he said in a text message. “They owe around $800,000 in arrearages for wholesale power which means that the city hasn’t been billing the people for the actual costs. Itta Bena Electric is not regulated by us because they are city owned. It’s all been the responsibility of the mayor and board.”
Itta Bena Mayor J.D. Brasel, during Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Board of Aldermen, related the call he had received from Presley and asked the aldermen to start thinking of some ideas in advance of the meeting with the public service commissioner.
City Attorney Solomon Osborne, who also serves in the Mississippi Legislature, had been asked last month to speak with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson to see if the Democratic congressman could help. Osborne reported Tuesday that Thompson was “reluctant” to work with Itta Bena because of past discussions with town officials that did not prove fruitful.
According to Osborne and Ward 3 Alderman Darrick Hart, Thompson had been working on a deal to have solar panels installed in certain areas of the town, and the installer would pay off all debt owed by the town to MEAM after the project was completed. The board failed to act on the proposal.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Brasel said the debt to MEAM has “just been floating around” and that the town has been able to only pay it down sporadically.
Itta Bena’s utility operation has been a longstanding problem.
Earlier this year, one resident, Patricia Young, collected around 300 signatures on a petition requesting an investigation by the State Auditor’s Office into what she claimed were varying charges to the utility’s residential customers. She said her research found that while most residents have been paying around 12 cents per kilowatt hour, others have been charged anywhere from 14 to 20 cents.
The matter has been turned over to the auditor’s investigation department. On Tuesday, Logan Reeves, a spokesman for the state agency, said there have not been any updates on the investigation.
Earlier this month, a former Leland city clerk, Mickey Fratesi, came to the Itta Bena board and volunteered to help examine some of the town’s electricity bills to check for possible problems.
Fratesi has not returned, according to Brasel, who claimed the Commonwealth’s coverage of the situation has made Fratesi reluctant to get involved.
• Contact Adam Bakst at 581-7233 or email@example.com. Twitter: @AdamBakst_GWCW