By TESA GLASS email@example.com
---- — BENTON — Jefferson County leaders have approached the Rend Lake Conservancy District about providing water to a group of district residents who don't have water service.
"Nine families would be served," said Jefferson County Board member Randy Edwards. "We've been to the city...but these people aren't located in the city limits. ... I'm asking if you can give me some help on this situation. They have been paying taxes to RLCD for 40 years."
Edwards explained many of the residents and their family have been living in the area — located on Sparrow Lane — for 40 years, while others have moved there more recently. The families are located between two Mt. Vernon water lines, but there is not contiguous land between the properties in question and the city limits, which means the properties can't be annexed into the city at this time.
Edwards was told the district could not tap into city-owned and maintained lines, which would mean about two miles of pipe; the closest RLCD line would be several miles away, on Bunny Farm Road.
"We've never built a water main for someone else," said RLCD Chairman Keith Ward. "If we did that, we'd have to build for everyone to be fair. If you built for 60 communities, that's ... a big chunk of cash there. Besides, we don't have it in our policy"
Edwards said although the city of Mt. Vernon is moving in the western direction, it isn't at that point yet, and he understood what members of the board said.
"But these people have paid taxes to you all for so long. This is 2013. We have people drinking out of wells and cisterns."
Members of the board from Jefferson County said they knew of several "pockets" of people living in the district who did not receive water.
"I can name five in Franklin County right now, including outside of Sesser," Ward said. "There is a line that is the city's and they would have 15 new customers. But the city will not sign off on them, they want them to annex into the city, so they won't sign off."
County Board Chairman Robert White said during a meeting he and Edwards had with RLCD general manager Keith Thomason and Mt. Vernon City Manager Ron Neibert, he was told the city doesn't have funds in the budget at this time to extend the water lines.
"I understand people being in the area for a long time and not getting water in 2013," said RLCD Board Member Jim Rippy. I don't understand people who move into the area, knowing they don't have water service, and wanting someone else to put the water in."
Board member Jere Shaw, who has been outspoken on his opinion on the issue, said in 2006 he proposed the district set aside funds to provide incentives to municipalities to help them put in the additional lines to provide water to residents. Shaw said he was voted down then. A later vote on Shaw's motion to set aside $100,000 annually for five years was also defeated.
"Why couldn't the city set aside the funds for this?" countered Ward. "Is it our responsibility to provide water to all these people?"
"I don't see why people should be part of the district if they are not being provided water," Shaw said. "I was here in 1955 when this district was established. ... At no time did people say there were only creating this district to provide water to only certain people."
"We've heard your philosophy before," Board Member Don Lucas said.
"I'm sharing it again," Shaw answered.
"It will have the same effect on me it's had before," Lucas said.
"It's my turn to speak, and I'm going to speak," Shaw said. "We have the money, we have deep pockets. ... If we set aside $100,000 per year for five years, it wouldn't hurt us. It would be a drop in the bucket. ... if people don't get water, they shouldn't have to pay taxes to this district. I'm not saying run a water line for four or five miles. ... I'm saying to provide incentives to cities to run those lines outside their areas to provide the service."
RLCD General Manager Keith Thomason defended not providing water to those who pay taxes in the district.
"People get confused when it comes to the taxes," Thomason said. "Everyone benefits, even if they don't use all the services. They have use of the lake, they have water ... they enjoy the economic benefit from the water service and the jobs. Many don't realize the economic benefit we bring to the area. Without us, there would have been no General Tire, no coal mines in the area. Not everybody will agree with this, but everyone gets a benefit, even if you don't get direct service."
Edwards said when the district built the water lines to serve residents on Bunny Farm Road, the residents received the benefit of water service.
"Those people aren't paying more taxes or less taxes, percentage-wise, but are receiving benefits from RLCD — water — that my people aren't. I'm just asking for help.
Ward said Edwards' argument is with the city of Mt. Vernon, not RLCD.
"The city isn't a water district," Shaw said. "They don't have the responsibility to serve these people."
Ward said to help the families on Sparrow Lane would be "giving special favors."
"Mr. Shaw, you have been critical of giving special favors in the past, this would be a special favor for nine people," Ward said.
Board Member Todd Thomas said he wants to know how many people are in the district who pay taxes but don't receive water service.
"I agree with what you are trying to do," Thomas said. "But I want to wait and find out and get the information we need on paper. Then, if it's something we can tackle, we make a decision. But we need to get the information first."
Thomason was directed to make a list of those who pay taxes in the district but don't receive water, and to find out their locations. Thomason said he would complete the ongoing project to map the RLCD water distribution lines first, so board members would be able to see where lines stop and where the coverage gaps lie in comparison.