Jackson-based animal shelter questions water bill for more than $54,000

Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 5:14 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The state’s largest animal shelter is questioning why their water bills have skyrocketed in recent months, and they’ve been told by one Jackson City Councilman not to pay them.

Mississippi Animal Rescue League’s September 15 statement shows the nonprofit owing more than $54,000 in current and outstanding water and sewer fees.

That amount is nearly three times as much as what MARL owed in November when the shelter received a bill saying it had a past due amount of more than $19,000.

Meanwhile, MARL’s monthly bill has climbed from around $300 or $325 a month for water and sewer to more than $9,000 for August and $8,800 for September.

“It can’t possibly be an accurate figure,” said MARL Communications Coordinator Debra Boswell. “It’s almost like somebody just said, ‘Apparently, let’s plug this in at the animal shelter. They have dogs and must use a lot of water, so bam.’ It’s what it kind of makes us feel like – they’re just plugging in numbers. Either [that] or actually reading meters and the meters are not accurate.”

The problem began several years ago, when customers began reporting water bill issues across the city.

“We were still getting water bills and they were still about what they were supposed to be, but then, all of a sudden, we were getting bills showing a zero balance,” she said. “And then, we were calling and saying, ‘What’s our bill? It’s not reflected appropriately on our statement.’ And they kept saying, ‘Well, you don’t owe anything.’ So, then, we quit getting bills altogether. And we didn’t get bills for three and a half years, maybe a little longer.”

The city’s billing complications stem from its previous contract with Siemens. The company was brought on to completely overhaul Jackson’s billing system, but the new system never worked.

Jackson has been working to replace the meters installed as part of the Siemens contract since February. So far, about 24,000 of the 58,000 have been replaced, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Boswell was unsure if one of the new meters had been installed at MARL. Even if one has, she says the amount of water the shelter uses hadn’t changed, and the shelter has no leaking pipes.

She says MARL can’t afford the $54,000 bill and is worried their water will be cut off if it isn’t paid.

“I mean, it’s definitely an error somewhere in their computer billing system, their processing system,” she said. “It’s an error, and they’re going to have to, you know, find it and work it out.”

MARL has sought help, reaching out to the city’s Water Sewer Business Administration, the office that handles water bill inquiries, but got nowhere.

That’s when Boswell turned to fellow dog lover Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes. She says the longtime city councilman promised her water would keep flowing out of MARL’s taps.

“How can you force a person to pay a water bill they don’t owe? And then, they got to pay a new bill, so you’re paying two water bills,” he said. “What they’re doing to the rescue league is absolutely wrong.”

Stokes says he’s disappointed that no one has been able to sort out the problem.“They don’t like that hanging over their head, that you can cut their water off. They’re the ones taking care of most of the animals,” he said. “The Animal Rescue League is somebody that we respect and love.”

MARL receives about 10,000 animals a year at its shelter at 5221 Greenway Dr. Ext.

“That dropped a little bit during COVID, down to the 9,000 range because so many people were at home, and I guess they had more time to deal with animals that were behavioral issues or [that] they were worried about leaving at home. But that’s about our average.”

In addition to taking in strays and unwanted pets, the shelter also will temporarily house animals free of charge during natural disasters.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the shelter took in 17,000 animals, many from evacuees that couldn’t find places to stay that accepted pets. MARL housed 74 dogs and cats evacuated during the 2020 Pearl River Flood and two others that were evacuated during the less severe 2022 Pearl Flood, she said.

She’s not sure what’s going to happen if the water is shut off. The shelter has been no stranger to water issues over the years. At their previous location, Boswell and her son worked all through Christmas night to clean dog runs, fill buckets and fill bathtubs before contacting the city about a burst pipe under the street.

“I went down... to check on the animals... and we had a busted pipe,” she said. “It was like a frozen ice structure in the middle of the street.”

She knew the water would have to be shut off temporarily while that pipe was repaired, and worked quickly because she was not sure how long repairs would take.

During the recent water crisis, the league relied on donations of bottled water and purification tablets to ensure animals stayed hydrated. At the same time, MARL filled up barrels out of town to bring into the shelter as needed.

City officials were not immediately available for comment.

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