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Senator says state help could be on the way for Jackson’s water system

Mississippi state Sen. John Horhn is shaken up but thankful for his life after he was robbed at...
Mississippi state Sen. John Horhn is shaken up but thankful for his life after he was robbed at gunpoint.
Updated: Mar. 4, 2021 at 2:13 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A longtime state senator and member of the Jackson legislative delegation says he’s wary about raising taxes again in the capital city, saying it could drive business away.

The city is asking the Mississippi Legislature for permission to raise sales taxes by an additional one-percent, with the hopes of dedicating the funds to repairing its water and sewer system.

The council approved a resolution asking for the tax hike at its Tuesday meeting. The motion was approved as the city struggles to restore water service to residents following the February winter storms.

District 26 Sen. John Horhn, though, said there may be better ways to help Jackson and other municipalities repair their systems rather than seeking a tax hike.

“Certainly, we need resources in the city to help address the issue, but I’m really concerned that another sales tax hike in the city is going to run business away,” he said. “We need to get help from the federal government and from the state of Mississippi.”

Horhn said some help from the state could be on the way.

The legislature is again considering a bill that would allow Jackson and other cities to address its uncollectible water debt.

Horhn introduced a similar measure in 2020, specifically for the city of Jackson.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously but was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves.

The senator reintroduced a modified version of that legislation in 2021, after speaking with the governor’s staff.

Horhn’s bill failed to make it out of a Senate committee this year. However, a similar measure, H.B. 359, passed the House and was transmitted to the Senate.

“The House version only applied to Jackson, (but) we amended it to put my language in it to make it statewide,” Horhn said.

Under the amended measure, cities would have the ability to put uncollectible water and sewer debt into a separate category on their balance sheets, something that could, in turn, help improve municipalities’ credit ratings.

The measure also would allow cities to offer payment plans in certain cases of high balances and allow them to stop collections on debts in others, depending on the customer’s circumstances.

“If you’re dealing with someone at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, you’ll be able to set up an extended payment plan with them, determined on that person’s economics, and set aside a portion of the debt as uncollectible,” Horhn explained.

“It does not forgive the debt, but puts it in a separate category so it won’t negatively impact a city’s bond rating ... Cities will be better able to issue bonds and initiate debt if their bond ratings improve.”

The measure passed out of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committee on March 2, and is expected to be taken up by the full Senate next week.

Additionally, the Hinds County legislative delegation is working to put together a bond request for funding to help Jackson make some needed repairs.

“We have not settled on numbers, but we are in discussion with the leadership in the House and Senate,” Horhn said.

In a March 3 letter to the governor, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at least $47 million in emergency funding was needed to make repairs to distribution lines and its water treatment plants.

A facilities plan showing how those dollars would be used is shown below:

Overall, Jackson has approximately $2 billion in water and sewer infrastructure needs in the city. The system’s weaknesses were exposed in February by the severe winter storms, which crippled Jackson’s ability to produce water at its O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility.

As a result of the drop in production, water service was interrupted for nearly 43,000 people. On Wednesday, more than two weeks after the storms hit, an estimated 10,000 customers were still without water.

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