Marion City Council may raise water rates

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 23, 2005

There are many words that could describe the atmosphere at Monday evening’s City Council meeting in Marion. Unfortunately for Mayor Anthony J. Long and the rest of the Marion council, all those words– hostile, belligerent, tense, distrustful, nervy–mean about the same thing.

A proposed hike in the city’s residential water bills has been met with a predictably angry response from many in the Marion community. The need for higher water bills stems from the cost of treating the city’s water, which is currently paid for only by the city’s industry. Under the new plan, residents would bear the cost of treatment as well.

“It’s gotta be tended to,” Mayor Long told the assembled crowd. “I didn’t do this. I’m not blaming the previous administration, now. But there hasn’t been an increase in the water bills since 1997. We have to work together. No one wants to pay more for their water bill. I certainly don’t. But this is the fairest thing we could come up with. Everybody–me, you, men, women, young and old–will have to pay it.”

Long’s assurances were not enough to satisfy the opponents of the increase, which had packed the city meeting room beyond capacity. Many attendees were forced to either stand along the walls, in the doorway, or even listen as best they could from the hallway.

In all likelihood, those outside the meeting room didn’t hear too much. Frequent outbursts of criticism from the crowd, often spoken over the discussion within the council, made the meeting difficult to follow even for those within the room. Attempts by council members and Marion law enforcement to quiet the outbursts were often met with defiance.

“Don’t tell nobody to hush,” said one attendee. “Y’all are going to have to listen to me.”

The most visible, well-known, and vocal of the opponents in attendance was Albert Turner, Jr., Perry County Commissioner and current candidate for the state House of Representatives.

“What I want to know is why it costs so much to treat our water,” Turner told the council. “Has anyone looked at alternative sites for our wells? Why have we been drilling wells in the same place where we know there is a high iron content?”

One exchange between Turner and the council became so heated that Marion police chief Tony Bufford walked over to gently ask Turner to calm down.

According to councilman Corin Harrison, the council had done the best it could to keep costs down.

“We’ve had four or five Monday work sessions on this,” he told the crowd, “and we’ve come up with what’s the best way to handle it. To give you some background, the city’s water and sewer costs lose the city between 15.5 and 16 thousand dollars a month. A couple years, maybe more, like this and the state will come in and take over.”

According to Mayor Long, a similar situation developed in Tuskegee, where the city went bankrupt and the state imposed a flat $100 fee on every monthly water bill.

“And that would be on top of the normal water bill. All we’re proposing is a $10.22 flat increase across the board,” Long said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “That’s 34 cents a day. It’s for everybody. This is a problem that’s been going on. It wouldn’t matter who the mayor was, they’d have to deal with it.”

The possibility of a public hearing on the matter was discussed, but the city’s attorney said that while a hearing was “always a good idea,” it was not required by law.

At least one councilman, James Hollis, voiced his disapproval of the hike, saying that the county needed to look elsewhere for revenue.

“The people of my district cannot afford this,” he said.

This drew a sharp response from councilman Harrison, who asked Hollis “Where were you at the work sessions?”

In the midst of the atmosphere of hostility, Long was left to call for unity.

“We have to learn to work together,” Long told the crowd. “Nobody here is against anybody. When the town suffers, everybody suffers.”