Piggott Council Updated on Prospects, Street Project

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Members of the Piggott City Council met in regular session on Tuesday, Jan. 30, and handled a fairly light agenda. Prior to the start of the regular business meeting, council heard from several MLWS customers concerned about recent high bills.

Prior to addressing the agenda, council members organized for the coming year as is required by law at the first meeting of each calendar year. In keeping with the recent schedule, the council members voted the meetings be held at 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month, unless the day falls on a holiday or is otherwise rescheduled by a majority vote.

The reorganization was approved on a vote of 4-0.

Job Stimulus Board chair Mike Scott then addressed the council, seeking approval of their 2018 budget and the 2017 actual budget. Scott indicated the board had $538,000 in their fund, and noted they were currently working with three prospects.

He indicated the negotiations were still underway, and hoped the board would have some good news to share with council in the coming months. During the discussion it was noted the prospects offer higher than average wages, and would be a good fit for the city based on the availability of utilities.

The budget was approved as presented by council without dissent.

Council members then re-visited the issue of considering a lower electric rate for Piggott Community Hospital, which was the subject of a joint meeting with the hospital board earlier in the day.

Noting his dissatisfaction with the presentation by PCH administrators, which was designed to highlight to the council how the hospital intended to pay future electric bills, councilman Mike Cook offered a motion to table the matter until the February meeting.

“I'm just not satisfied, I'm not confident about it going forward,” he noted.

Council members then discussed the issue at length, reviewing a variety of ways to raise additional funding to allow the hospital to take care of the obligation. Afterward, they agreed to seek more input from the hospital administration before putting the matter of a lower electric rate for the facility to a final vote.

Later in the meeting Cook offered a motion to waive the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase in electric rates only for the coming year. Council member Jeff Benbrook offered the second, and the issue passed on a vote of 4-0.

The matter of the CPI had come up for discussion at the December meeting, and was tabled at that time. Several years ago, under Mayor Gerald Morris, an ordinance was passed which ties Piggott's electric, water and sewer rates to the CPI and mandates automatic increases to reflect the rising cost of living. These increases may only be avoided if council takes action to waive the CPI, which they have done on electric for the past three years.

When the matter of the CPI was first broached in December, it was noted that the city was falling behind actual costs and not allowing the increase could cause future problems—leading to it being tabled at the time. In making the motion to waive it for calendar 2018, Cook stipulated it be removed only from electric and allowed to go into affect on water and sewer rates.

Without discussion the measure passed 4-0.

According to information from MLWS, the increase for an average customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours would have amounted to about $2.27 per month had the CPI been allowed to go into affect.

Late in the meeting Mayor Jim Poole had some good news to share, as he reported the state has approved an overlay project for West Clay Street. Working in conjunction with the county, as they're seeking to have CR 450 paved, the city was able to combine the projects and get the street overlayed at no cost.

“This is about a $250,000 project and the state is going to take care of it all like they did on North Fourth (Avenue),” he explained. “They'll do the engineering, preparation and all the work.”

Poole indicated the project should include all of West Clay, from the courthouse square to near the Wright's Chapel Church.

Members of the council also passed a resolution to be sent to the Federal Communications Commission in which they objected to new rate increases by NewWave Communications for cable and internet service. The resolution was passed on a vote of 4-0.

In other business the council-

--Accepted the resignations of Greg Mallard, Kevin Jones and Jeff Puckett from the airport commission.

--Re-appointed Terry Allen to the airport commission.

--Appointed Danny Helms to the airport commission to replace Greg Mallard

--Re-appointed Sharon James, Frank Staples and Dale Grimes to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

--Heard an update on condemnations and set a hearing on the property at 857 East Orr Street.

--Were updated on MLWS projects, including the placement of new meters.

Public Comments

Over 75 customers of the Piggott MLWS gathered at city hall on Tuesday, Jan. 30 for the regular monthly meeting of the city council, to discuss larger-than-average electric bills. Due to the large number of spectators, the meeting was moved to the nearby dining room to accommodate the crowd.

“Since there are a lot of folks here we're going to do things a little different,” Mayor Jim Poole explained as he opened the floor to comments. “Normally, groups wanting to discuss a single issue would be required to name a spokesman, but we want to make sure everyone is heard on this issue.”

Many of those in attendance were apparently reacting to social media posts, which informed utility customers that a rate increase would be discussed. This information was somewhat misleading, as the council was not scheduled to discuss rates and the issue did not appear on the agenda.

Some of those attending were apparently informed the matter of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) would be up for discussion, although it was not included on the agenda either. At the previous regular meeting the CPI increase, which is mandated by ordinance, was discussed but tabled.

What was at issue was consideration of lower industrial rates for Piggott Community Hospital, which had prompted some of the confusion as a number of residents believed the two matters to be related. A number of the individuals had also attended the earlier meeting, after it was suggested on social media that rates would be discussed.

During the earlier gathering PCH administrator James Magee presented a plan of action for increasing revenue in an effort to remain current with the MLWS. He also noted at the time, that one of the key components would be the extension of the lower industrial rate.

The rate, which still includes a slight margin of profit, was formulated several years ago to provide for large electric consumers and was originally intended to assist the L.A. Darling facility.

(a full story on the regular Piggott City Council meeting may be found elsewhere in this edition)

Yielding the floor, Poole introduced utilities director Brian Haley who was tasked with explaining the city's part ownership in Plum Point Power Plant, and the related intricacies of doing business in the modern power market.

Outlining the history of the involvement in Plum Point, Haley provided the group with an overview of regional and local operations and fielded questions from a number of residents and interested persons.

He also addressed the issue of the hospital, and its bill, noting it had nothing to do with the amounts reflected on the current bills of city residents.

Of those speaking to council, the majority were primarily concerned with the size of their individual monthly bills although many noted they were also concerned about the city's future. During the discussion, several customers related much higher than average charges, in some cases three and four times the usual amount.

Citing the recent weather conditions, Haley indicated the higher charges were only related to usage and had nothing to do with the rates charged.

“We had a number of days when the temperature never climbed above freezing, and several nights with single digit temperatures,” he explained. “Even with the thermostat turned down it takes a lot of energy to heat when it's that cold. Especially if you were using electric heat, which is the most inefficient.”

Haley addressed specific account issues, and scheduled visits with several of the customers in order to determine why they're using so much power.

“We will come out and help you do an inspection for free,” he offered. “We'll do everything we can to identify any problems and help you reduce your consumption.”

He also indicated the department would do all it could to set up a payment plan in an effort to help customers, as long as they continued to make an effort to pay the full amount.

A number of other issues were reviewed, including the city's recent change to outsourcing the printing and mailing of bills. This service meets privacy concerns, allows bills to be mailed later and costs the city about $400 a month.

Later in the week, Haley announced that no late charges would be levied until Feb. 21, on the bills which were due on Feb. 10. The announcement was posted on the MLWS Facebook page to all customers, and read-

City of Piggott Utility Administrator Brian Haley announced on Thursday that due to the extremely cold weather conditions resulting in high consumption on electric bills, MLWS will be delaying the posting of penalties until Feb. 21, 2018.

This will give customers an additional 10 days to pay their utility bills without penalties being added.

Those who have questions concerning the process may call 870 598-3243 or email them at billing@cityofpiggott.org

“If you need to make payment arrangements on your bill, please call our office and we will be happy to help you,” a spokeswoman added.

In making the announcement, Haley reiterated the higher-than-average bills were only related to the high usage due to the cold weather, and no rate increase was instituted.

By law, MLWS rates for the city of Piggott may only be increased by ordinance which must be approved by a majority vote of the city council on three separate occasions.

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