JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson city officials say a recent vote by the city council will go a long way to shoring up its beleaguered water/sewer billing system.
At its meeting Tuesday, the council approved entering in to a “master utility service agreement” with Sustainability Partners LLC (SP).
The Arizona-based firm will help the city’s Water-Sewer Billing Administration procure, replace and maintain the commercial meters installed as part of the Siemens contract.
“We need to start fixing the problem, and this is the first step toward fixing our problem and ensuring that we’re bringing in the income we should be bringing in from our commercial meters,” said Dr. Safiya Omari, chief of staff for Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
The motion was approved on a 4-2 vote, with Council members Ashby Foote, Virgi Lindsay, Aaron Banks and Charles Tillman voting in favor.
Opposed to it were Ward Three Councilman Kenneth Stokes and Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps.
Stokes said the council has approved numerous contracts in recent years, all designed to fix the billing system, but said the system is still not fixed.
He pointed to the fact that some residents are currently suing the city in connection with water bills that are too high.
“We’ve heard this over and over again, that we’re fixing the problem,” the councilman said. “When we had Director Miller here, we heard the same thing. Now, we’ve got another contract.
Robert Miller previously served as public works director. He resigned earlier this year.
“Somewhere down the line, the problem should have been fixed,” Stokes added. “We’re spending money, dollar after dollar, and people are still not getting their bills and can’t pay their bills.”
He urged the council to hold off on approving the agreement until he could see a copy of all the contracts the city has approved.
Omari said Stokes would have found out more about the agreement had attend the council’s Water/Sewer Ad Hoc Committee meetings, where the Sustainability Partners contract and other contracts have been discussed at length.
“If (Councilman Stokes) would like to be brought up to speed, because he has not been to those meetings, we’ll be happy to do that,” she said, adding that the council needed to approve Tuesday’s agreement “so we can provide our citizens with the relief they deserve.”
She said that once this project is completed, the city should begin bringing in enough revenues to begin correcting problems with its residential meters.
Lindsay, who represents Ward Seven, said she appreciated Stokes’ concerns, but said the contract is needed to help the city increase revenue coming into the water/sewer enterprise fund.
The enterprise account is funded through water and sewer collections, with a big chunk of that coming from commercial accounts.
However, because of complications with the metering and billing systems, many businesses have not been receiving regular statements, and therefore, have not been paying their bills.
In some cases, when customers do receive their bills, the bills are so high that they can’t pay.
Because of complications such as those, in 2018, the enterprise fund nearly ran out of money, and the city had to dip into general fund dollars to prop up the water department.
“It is really a drain on the city at this point,” Lindsay said. “We are a very poor and broken city, because or enterprise fund is not working.”
Under terms of the agreement, SP will work “in partnership to provide new meters … so we can get our collections up, as far as commercial accounts,” Banks said. “There was a big deficit in what we’re collecting on the business side.”
SP will work with the city to bid out and purchase commercial water meters, meter reading components and installation services from “the lowest and best bidder.”
The meters will be used, in part, to replace the commercial devices installed by Siemens and its subcontractors.
Jackson brought on Siemens in 2012 or 2013 to overhaul the water billing system. Complications with the current billing system stem from that work, city officials say.
In all, about 6,000 commercial customers would be impacted.
Once the meters are in place, they will be owned and maintained by SP through the duration of their contract, according to city council documents.
The city would pay SP a monthly fee based on a per-meter rate and meter procurement costs.
Any payment agreement would also have to be brought back to the council for approval.
Last year, Jackson brought in $46.2 million in water and sewer revenues, about $13 million less than was budgeted. It was not known how much of that came from commercial customers.