PETAL, MS (WDAM) - Glendale Utility District has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Petal because the city's annexation ordinance.
"Originally, when I discussed it with counsel for the City of Petal, it was indicated that Petal didn't want to provide water service and was not interested in purchasing the Glendale Utility District," said Pat Zachary, Glendale Utility District Attorney. "When we got a copy of the complaint that was filed in chancery court, it was clear from the review of the city ordinance that was passed by Petal that they were going to provide water and sewer service. That's what their ordinance authorizes them to do."
Zachary said utility district provides water and sewer service a little more than 1,500 people and businesses that with out the help of U.S. Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, would not have those services.
"My district is indebted to the rural development United State Department of Agriculture for the money that they borrowed to initially do the infrastructure, build the water tower, that sort of thing," Zachary said.
Because of that debt, Zachary said the district is protected by a federal code that prevents cities from taking over rural water districts.
"We've still got an almost $700,000 debt out there to the federal government that we need to repay, and because of that, we can't give an inch for fear of getting a mile," Zachary said. "The way the federal statute's written, we have this protection as long as we owe the debt to the federal government, and the debt is owed until 2028. At 2028, they can do whatever they want to because we won't have the protection."
Despite the lawsuit, Petal said it is not changing its annexation plans.
"The language we use (in our annexation ordinance) is standard language in all annexations all over the state," said Petal Mayor Hal Marx. "That's what you say every time. We used the same language the time time the city annexed back in 2003, and we still have two different water associations that operate inside the city limits that aren't City of Petal (water). We've done nothing to take them over or interfere with their customers. The same would happen with Glendale. So I understand what they're concerned about, but we've tried to assure them that's not the case. Again, I think until we actually moved to do that, I think that their lawsuit is premature. Simply annexing an area does not interfere with their ability to serve their water customers. So I think it's a little early for them to be filing something like this, but we're going to move forward either way."
Zachary said, "It says '...shall make the following improvements,' and 'shall' under the law means they don't have any choice. So the way Glendale Utility District interprets that is that the City of Petal intends on being in the water business, and that would be exactly against what the federal government protects us from. They intend to argue that they don't have any desire to offer water and sewer, even though that's not what their ordinance says. I anticipate they will tell the federal court they just want to annex and let us continue to provide water and sewer service. The problem with that is basically once you get the foot in the door, once you get annexed, then what's to prohibit them later on stating 'well y'all aren't providing the appropriate service, and we want to get into the water and sewer business.'"
Marx said he wants the city and the utility district to coexist.
"That's the whole purpose," Marx said. "We want to go in and improve the quality of life for people in that area with the things a city can offer and also work with their utility association. For instance, we would become a customer of the Glendale Utility District because sooner or later, we'd put in a fire line to service fire hydrants and things along those areas. We would be buying the water from them. So we would actually increase their revenue and be a customer for them, so we feel like it's a win-win situation for us and for them."
Glendale Utility District would like the city to adjust its annexation ordinance to exclude the district from annexation plans entirely.
"This is the only one that involves our district," Zachary said. "Part of what the suit is requesting of the federal court is that the court enter an order basically requiring that they amend their ordinance and delete basically this area from their ordinance, but also delete the language that requires them to provide water and sewer service to any of the annexed areas."
Marx said the multiple areas included in the annexation were intended to work as a cohesive unit. While the final decision of what land the city is able to annex lies with a chancery court judge, Marx said the area the utility district wants excluded is one of the most important for the city to acquire.
"We're going to continue to ask for what we've asked for," Marx said. "However, I would say if you had to prioritize, people in the City of Petal, one of our main priorities is to grow towards the interstate to control the Evelyn Gandy, the growth along the Evelyn Gandy. So I think out of all the areas, if push came to shove, that would be one of the last that we would say 'we don't need to grow in that direction.' So I don't see that happening."
Zachary said, "We're not against or trying to stop Petal's growth. We're just trying to protect our water district and the ability we have to service those customers and to continuing paying our federal debt."
Marx said is willing to do what it whatever it takes, including buying out the Glendale Utility District, to make sure Petal is able to grow.
"We're prepared to do what we have to do to grow," said Marx."Petal is going to grow, and we need to grow in that direction of the interstate. If a judge were to disagree with our position and agree with their position, then we're also prepared to move forward in another way, which is to basically buy out their utility district if that's what it would take to be able to annex."