Itta Bena should have gotten out of the electricity business years ago. It finally gave itself no choice by running up a big enough bill that its frustrated supplier is cutting the cord.
Now there is a crisis. City officials — with the intervention of Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley — are scrambling to find someone, anyone, to take over the mess before the lights get cut off on Dec. 1.
Five years ago, when Itta Bena’s debt to the Municipal Energy Agency of Mississippi stood at around $650,000, I predicted this outcome was inevitable.
If another utility doesn’t add Leflore County’s second largest municipality to its service area, I wrote then, “Itta Bena is going to wake up one day and wonder why it’s in the dark.”
With a debt now reportedly at $800,000 to MEAM, that day is now just a little more than a month away.
MEAM was formed decades ago by a half-dozen municipally owned utilities, including Itta Bena’s power department as well as Greenwood Utilities. The idea was that by combining their purchasing power, the utility companies could reduce their cost of electricity and pass on the savings to their customers. The concept has worked so well that Greenwood Utilities stopped generating its own electricity years ago because it could buy it less expensively on the wholesale market.
Itta Bena, though, has struggled for years to keep up its end of the bargain and pay for the power being sent to it to distribute to its customers. A former city clerk stole almost $100,000 from the utility account, and officials in the cash-strapped town chronically used utility collections to cover the costs of its other operations rather than pay MEAM.
Itta Bena became more of an albatross than an asset for MEAM, and the other members of the power partnership had more than adequate reason to cut their ties to the town.
Presley is hoping he can persuade Delta Electric Power Association or Entergy Mississippi to step in.
Delta Electric may be less than enthusiastic. The timing is terrible for it. It is in the middle of its first venture into providing high-speed internet access. That project, mostly in Carroll County, has a timetable of being finished by the end of the year because half of the nearly $10 million price tag is being covered by coronavirus relief money from the federal government. Delta Electric’s employees are already stretched to get that expansion of service accomplished.
I don’t know what Entergy Mississippi might already have going, but either provider is going to have to have a little bit of compassion to take on serving Itta Bena, at least at first.
Being severely delinquent in paying MEAM has not been the city’s only shortcoming. It has also neglected to maintain its transmission infrastructure. It’s going to require a significant capital investment by the next utility provider to bring the substations and power lines up to par.
Plus there are going to be headaches in getting Itta Bena’s billing records transferred. Recently the focus has been on the discontent by residents over what they contend are high and inconsistent light bills. But there have also been regular claims over the years of customers getting power without paying for it or paying for less than what they consume.
Although the potential loss of electrical service might be the most pressing problem, it’s not the only one Itta Bena faces. Its city-operated water and sewer system is crumbling, too. It is also months behind on paying Leflore County for garbage collection and police protection.
Not only does Itta Bena lack the resources and expertise to run a utility system. It may not have what it takes anymore to run a town competently.
Itta Bena is a prime example of the Delta’s shrinking, which has been particularly hard on its smallest communities. The town, according to the latest estimate, is down to about 1,800 residents, smaller than some of the unincorporated subdivisions to the east of Greenwood’s city limits. Most of its commerce is gone, and most of the reasons — other than pride and tradition — for running a municipality are gone as well.
Its government is unable to provide better services than residents could get elsewhere. It has a university located across the highway, but the town offers little in the way of shopping, dining or other entertainment to entice those who work or go to school there to want to cross that highway. The town can’t get grants to address its woes because it’s years behind on being audited.
Conditions for residents would probably improve if Itta Bena were to unincorporate. The East Leflore Water and Sewer District could take over the non-electrical utilities. The county could take over the remaining services, a large chunk of which it is already providing. Itta Bena might have to file for bankruptcy on the debt it has accumulated, but it looks to be heading in that direction anyway.
The right leadership might be able to pull the town out of its deep hole, but several different administrations have not been able to do it. Maybe it’s just time to concede defeat.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.