People in a struggling Mississippi Delta town will soon have natural gas service after six months of heating bath water on electric stoves or cooking on hot plates because the town failed to pay its gas supplier for years.
Utility crews are restoring service in Winstonville this week just as the first blast of wintry air is moving across the rural flatlands.
Willie Wilson, 66, said he's looking forward to soaking under a good, hot shower. The semi-retired car salesman said Thursday that life without natural gas has been inconvenient for him and his wife: "I wouldn't wish it on anybody."
The town of 191 residents accumulated $611,718 in unpaid bills over 15 years to a natural gas supplier, Texas Gas Transmission. Residents were paying their bills, but for years the municipal gas system was not paying the supplier, said Cory Horton, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
Texas Gas cut off Winstonville's service May 27, saying it had tried for years to collect payments.
With nighttime temperatures dipping below freezing this week, those without natural gas service have relied on electric space heaters, electric blankets or kerosene heaters, Mayor Henry Perkins Jr. said.
"We have some trials and tribulations," Perkins told The Associated Press. "It's been really hard, especially when you're dealing with a lot of elderly people."
Winstonville is a community of modest brick homes and a couple of mom-and-pop stores about 130 miles northwest of Jackson along U.S. Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway. The area's median household income is $11,125, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Court records show Winstonville has had financial problems for at least two decades, and filed for bankruptcy in 1997.
Thompson said he and the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, finalized a deal this week to get Winstonville's natural gas service turned on by a different company, Atmos Energy.
"It was certainly a first for me, to have a whole town lose service," said Public Service Commissioner Lynn Posey, whose central district includes Winstonville.
Atmos is taking over ownership and operation of Winstonville's natural gas system, which had been owned and operated by the town. Atmos crews are in town this week, testing the pressure in gas lines and restoring service.
Texas Gas agreed not to place a lien on the system or ask Atmos to pay Winstonville's accumulated debt, said Liz Johnson, corporate communications director for Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, the parent company of Texas Gas. She told AP that Texas Gas still plans to pursue payment from Winstonville.
"Our company has been negotiating with the city for a while to try to work out a payment situation," Johnson said.
Texas Gas said in a statement that Winstonville has made only "sporadic, partial" payments since 1996. From mid-2009 to mid-2011, the company said the town paid only about 15.1 percent of the bills it incurred to the company.
Before cutting off Winstonville's service, Texas Gas gave notice of its plans to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"Terminating service is not an option that we take lightly," David Moseley, vice president of southern markets for Texas Gas, said in a statement in June. "We reached out to community officials many times over the years, especially over the past six months, but the town did not respond to our requests to resolve this matter in an equitable manner."
Perkins said he inherited the natural gas system's debt when he became mayor after winning a special election in late 2007. The mayor's job was open because Milton Tutwiler has resigned in September 2007, four months after being convicted on federal charges of conspiracy, misapplication of grant money and filing a false document involving a $1.3 million grant from Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone Alliance.
Tutwiler died in 2008. A photo on Winstonville's website shows the town's multipurpose building is named for him.
Thompson said this week that he contacted several government agencies to ease Winstonville's financial problems. The town also owed $323,759 to the USDA for a community facilities loan. After negotiations, the USDA agreed to let Winstonville pay $100 to clear its obligation for the loan, Thompson's staff said.
"It took a little while to resolve this," Thompson said. "There were so many people involved in the system. Everybody had had to agree to their part of it."