After unanimous passage of Jackson water bill relief legislation, leaders await governor’s signature

Published: Jun. 22, 2020 at 8:01 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Efforts between state lawmakers and the city of Jackson stand to benefit tens of thousands of residents and keep the city’s future on solid footing, that is, once it’s signed into law.

Senate Bill 2856, authored by State Sen. John Horhn (D-Jackson), will allow the Jackson Public Works Department far more flexibility when it comes to billing, allowing for payment plans in legitimate cases of high bills and forgiveness in others, depending on the circumstances.

“I think this is the first bill that the city of Jackson has ever proposed that’s gotten through the process without one dissenting vote,” Horhn said.

The bill sailed through with unanimous support in the Senate and House, now awaiting Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says he believes the legislation could potentially help one-fourth of the city’s residents who deal with thousands of dollars in water bills.

The legislation aims to not only give the city of Jackson more flexibility in reviewing and forgiving some of these bills, depending on financial circumstances, faulty equipment and even natural disasters, but also allow for payment plans in circumstances where people want to pay but cannot make the payments that are required because of penalties and other factors.

“We’re excited that this not only reflects a new opportunity and a light at the end of the tunnel as it relates to the city of Jackson, but it reflects a light at the end of the tunnel for so many customers, elderly customers who have made dinner table decisions, as to whether to pay their water bill or put food on the table or pay for medication,” Lumumba said at a Monday press conference.

While some of that bill forgiveness will no doubt affect how much revenue the city collects, Lumumba said leaders would rather get some money than nothing at all, and the legislation gives them more options to achieve that.

“Working out at the water department, we have seen a lot of heartbreaking stories of a lot of people who are struggling, and this legislation is gonna give us the opportunity to write policy and provide some relief for a lot of people,” said Jackson Public Works Deputy Director Carla Gammill.

The legislation, inspired by a bill introduced in Louisiana to help New Orleans with similar water collections struggles, marks a three-year lobbying effort, Lumumba said.

Jackson stands to benefit in two main ways: one, by getting more money in collections than was possible before.

Second, the bill allows the city to designate some portion of those bills as uncollectable, which would no longer count against the city’s bond rating when it’s evaluated.

It wouldn’t be debt forgiveness, Horhn said, but would help the city when borrowing money in the future for infrastructure improvements.

Lumumba said the bill clears the way for public works to draft policies and regulations that will no longer keep those financially struggling families from being able to get above water through increased penalties and fees.

“We have to find a more humane way of dealing with these challenges, which gives [Jacksonians] the runway to pay the bills that I believe quite honestly they do want to be able to pay,” Lumumba said.

Horhn believes part of that unanimous support came from the fact that many lawmakers expressed interest in implementing the same strategy in other communities as well, using Jackson as a pilot program.

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