Mississippi city won't lose lights after threat over debt

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Birdia Williams turns on her ceiling fan, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, to help cool the house she and her husband, John Williams, purchased 23 years earlier in Itta Bena, Miss., a few blocks from what was then a busy downtown. Now, the couple, living on a fix income as retirees, constantly worry on how to budget to compensate for what they believe are high electric bills from the city-run and owned utility. Because of a long standing debt with the wholesale electrical provider, the Municipal Energy Agency of Mississippi, the city is facing complete disconnection on Dec. 1. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – An entire city in Mississippi that was under threat of losing electricity before the end of the year because of unpaid bills will have more time to find a new power provider after the state stepped in, citing concerns about safety and public health.

“That is the fair, right and honest thing for us to do," Brandon Presley, a Mississippi public service commissioner, said at a meeting Thursday night in Itta Bena, a city of 1,800 in the Mississippi Delta. “We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. It is not an option for electricity to be shut off in the town of Itta Bena — it’s that simple.”

Municipal Energy Agency of Mississipi, a wholesale electricity provider, notified officials in Itta Bena in late August that it was pulling the plug on Dec. 1. MEAM said the city racked up $800,000 in debt over the course of 10 years.

MEAM officials have said they have tried at length over the course of years to collect payments and that the debt is hurting their business.

Itta Bena has faced a slew of economic challenges throughout its history rooted in racial inequality, white flight and a declining tax base. The city was founded around 1850 as a cotton-producing capital of the South that relied on slave labor.

After the Civil War, slaves were freed into a sharecropping system that resulted in generational poverty. Today, the city is 90% Black and 40% of people live below the poverty line.

Public officials paint differing pictures to the cause of the debt — Mayor J.D. Brasel said citizens owe at least $300,000 in unpaid bills to the city. As a middleman of sorts between residents and MEAM, the city purchases electricity from the wholesaler to sell residents and is responsible for the bill.

But former Mayor Thelma Collins, who left office in 2017, said officials have long known about the debt but prioritized other projects. She said lack of vision and planning exacerbate problems.