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Reeves not closing door on city’s request to raise sales tax

Updated: Mar. 2, 2021 at 4:06 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Gov. Tate Reeves Tuesday said he would not shut the door on Jackson’s request to raise sales taxes to cover water infrastructure needs.

However, he said Jackson would be better served by fixing its water billing system.

“That’s been a long-standing challenge for the city. They will admit that,” the governor said during a press conference. “Clearly their billing system is flawed at best, so there are a lot of things that need to be fixed and need to be discussed, and certainly we will be willing to do that.”

Tuesday, the Jackson City Council approved a resolution asking the state to allow the city to increase its sales tax by one-percent to help pay for its water and sewer needs if the tax was approved through a ballot referendum.

The Lumumba administration brought the proposal to the council as an emergency item, amid the city’s ongoing water crisis.

“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,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said. “Point blank, period.”

In February, winter storms blew through the state, crippling the capital city’s water distribution system, and leading to water outages for some 43,000 customers.

As of March 2, about 10,000 customers, including about 60 percent of residents in Ward Six, were still without water.

The resolution would allow Jackson to set a ballot referendum to ask voters in the city to increase sales taxes by one-percent, with the funds going directly to address Jackson’s water and sewer needs.

It would be on top of an existing one-percent infrastructure tax that was put in place in 2014.

Reeves, who has been traditionally opposed to tax increases, said he hadn’t seen the proposal but didn’t immediately reject the idea.

“I think that most things should be on the table, but I do think it’s really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start asking everyone else to pony up more money,” he said.

Jackson has been struggling to sort out its water billing problems for years. The complications stemmed from the city’s $90 million energy performance contract with Siemens.

The city brought on the firm in 2012/2013 to completely overhaul its billing system. Work included installing some 65,000 new water meters, installing new billing software in the billing office, and putting in place a network of repeaters and transmitters that would allow meters to directly communicate with the billing office.

Work wrapped up in 2015, and complications ensued. By 2018, the city’s water enterprise fund had nearly gone bankrupt. In 2019, the city sued Siemens and its subcontractors, citing complications. In early 2020, the administration settled the suit for the full contract costs.

In December, the council approved spending $8.7 million to update its billing system. Jackson has brought on a consultant to help draw up plans to replace other system components.

Billing problems aside, Reeves said the problems Jackson experienced following the winter storms were not unique to the capital city.

“At the height of the ice storm, Mississippi had 78 water systems that had boil water notices,” he said. “We had 78 systems throughout the state that were having and experiencing challenges. Today, we still have 21 water systems that are under a boil water notice.”

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