Jackson seeking sales tax hike to cover water and sewer needs

People are still without water in the capital city.
People are still without water in the capital city.(WLBT)
Updated: Mar. 2, 2021 at 11:42 AM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The city of Jackson is seeking a one-percent sales tax hike to help it address its water and sewer system needs.

The council voted to approve a resolution at its Tuesday meeting and will now be forwarded to members of Jackson’s legislative delegation.

Local lawmakers need the resolution in order to introduce a tax request bill as local and private legislation.

News comes as the city enters the third week of a water crisis, where tens of thousands of residents are still experiencing low or no water pressure.

Meanwhile, Jackson is still in negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding its sewer consent decree.

“What we are doing now is making our case that we need more support to deal with the infrastructure of Jackson,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the council. “The bottom line is our residents are suffering, they need us to fix the infrastructure and we need to do everything we can to help them. Point blank, period.”

Jackson is facing an estimated $2 billion in water and sewer infrastructure needs. Half of that amount is needed to shore up the water system, while approximately $945 million is needed to bring the sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.

However, with a budget of just over $300 million annually, fixing the system is near impossible, the mayor says.

“We don’t have the resources to work at the pace we need,” Lumumba said.

Water system needs came to light in recent weeks following two rounds of winter storms that nearly crippled the system. The storms caused equipment at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant to freeze up, severely decreasing water production.

“Obviously, we’d want to deal with our drinking water side,” Lumumba said. “This is at the top of our minds with what we’ve been enduring for the last couple of weeks, but we deal with sewer issues every single day.”

Public Works Director Charles Williams said funds would be needed to pay for staffing and upgrades at the water treatment plants, as well as to replace and repair water lines to lessen breaks during winter storms.

More than 80 main breaks have been reported as the city works to restore pressure to its water system. In 2018, the city faced some 300 water main breaks following winter storms in December and January. More than 100 breaks were reported after winter storms came through in 2010.

The breaks in 2010 and 2018 led to losses in water pressure across the city, leaving residents without water. In one case, port-a-potties had to be brought into the Mississippi State Capitol so the legislative session that year could continue.

If approved, the tax would be in addition to the one-percent infrastructure sales tax that was put in place in 2014. That tax was put in place solely to help the city address infrastructure needs.

Since its implementation, the tax has generated nearly $97 million and about $14 million a year.

Lumumba said he expects the sales tax the city is seeking now to generate just as much.

Like the city’s one-percent tax, the new assessment also would require a ballot referendum before it would be put in place. Approximately 90 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of implementing the tax.

“This does have a referendum added to it, so we would be putting it to the people, so they would have a voice in whether they want it or not,” Lumumba said.

Council members approved the resolution, even as they had concerns about how the current one-percent tax is being spent. In particular, they were concerned that if the tax is allowed, it also would fall under the jurisdiction of an oversight commission.

“We are not asking for a commission,” the mayor said.

As a condition of the 2014 tax, lawmakers required that a special, appointed commission be put in place to oversee how revenue generated by the tax was spent.

The commission has come under fire from the administration and city council members, in part, for not spending the one-percent monies equally across the city and for stalling the city’s efforts to make improvements.

Ward Three Councilman Kenneth Stokes said he’s seen no projects in his ward. Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps and Ward Six Councilman Aaron Banks voiced similar concerns.

Stamps also criticized the commission for picking projects here and there, rather than focusing on maintenance needs across the city.

He said had the commission focused more on maintenance, as well as building capacity in public works, the city might not be facing such a severe water crisis.

“We don’t need to send more money to an institution that is not allowing us to pay for maintenance,” Stamps said. “They’re spending most of the money on projects, not maintenance.”

Meanwhile, the mayor has raised concerns that one-percent funds can not be used for water and sewer.

According to state statute, the commission is responsible for drawing up an infrastructure master plan and ensuring that funds are spent in conjunction with it.

The commission, early on, decided not to prioritize water and sewer projects, saying Jackson has a dedicated revenue stream through water bill collections to pay for that work.

“The sales tax commission has adopted within its master plan … a position to not fund certain infrastructure projects,” Lumumba said. “That is an ongoing battle. It doesn’t take long when you join a (one-percent) meeting to see we’re in a battle every single meeting.”

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