JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A $47 million request to Gov. Tate Reeves to shore up the city’s water treatment plants has gotten the backing of the Jackson City Council.
Friday, the council approved backing up Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s request to seek $47 million in state and federal funding to make repairs to the city’s water treatment facilities.
The move comes days after some council members questioned the request, and weeks after the city’s water system was crippled by severe winter storms.
“The council is giving full support to the request letter the mayor (submitted to the governor) on Wednesday,” Council President Aaron Banks said.
The council also voted to ask lawmakers for an additional $60 million to build new water tanks in Byram and south and west Jackson.
The measures were approved unanimously and after much discussion between council members, the administration, public works, and state officials.
Prior to the council meeting, a Government Operations Committee meeting was held where the mayor’s letter, as well as the city’s water needs, were discussed at length.
On March 3, Lumumba sent a letter to Reeves asking for his help in securing nearly $47 million in funding, in large part, to help shore up compliance issues at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.
An itemized list of about 30 items was included with the letter, which raised some council members’ eyebrows.
Among concerns, Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote questioned who drew up the itemized list. He also wondered why the council was just seeing the list, even though it was compiled in December.
Public Works Director Charles Williams attempted to address those questions, saying that the document was “an itemized list of deficiencies that the EPA and health department would like to see us address as quickly as possible.”
Foote also wondered whether the list should change following the storms.
In mid-February, two rounds of winter weather came through the state, ravaging the city’s water system.
Because of the sub-freezing temperatures, equipment froze up at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, causing production there to drop. With water production down, pressure throughout the system fell off and water service for some 43,000 customers was lost.
The mayor said that he felt the priorities were “still on par with what we needed.”
The $47 million includes $35.1 million for construction, $3.5 million to cover cost overruns, and $8.1 million to cover project engineering design and construction inspection and administration.
An estimated $16 million would go to upgrades at the O.B. Curtis plant, nearly $12.8 million would go to transmission and distribution line improvements, and $6.2 million would go to the J.H. Fewell plant.
Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps was equally focused on increasing capacity in parts of the city hit hardest during the crisis.
Because pressure fell, water could not be pushed throughout the entirety of the distribution system. That meant that customers farthest away from the treatment plants lost water first and were the last to see water restored.
As of Friday, about 5,000 customers were still without water.
To help address that problem, Stamps proposed adding additional water tanks in south and west Jackson and in Byram.
He said new tanks also would ease residents’ concerns if the city decided to take them off of the well water and add them onto its surface water system. Currently, Jackson is unable to do that because the boosters on TV Road and Maddox Road are down.
“If they’re asked to get off the well system, they need capacity they can look at, and see and trust,” Stamps said. “My folks, in those (areas served by) wells, don’t have trust in the delivery system of O.B. Curtis.”
Williams said that new tanks would be a moot point if the city couldn’t get water to them.
“We have to make sure we can consistently provide water without having interruptions and then out from that whether we need to have additional storage tanks,” he said, adding that additional water lines would have to be constructed to keep those tanks full.
Meanwhile, city officials discussed the city’s problem with deferred maintenance.
Williams and the mayor said the city needed funds to make immediate repairs but needed a continuing source of revenue to do maintenance.
“In 2010, we had almost 500 breaks. In 2014, we had an issue with lead. In 2018, we had almost 300 breaks in the distribution system,” he said. “We also have to look at how we can continue to fund maintenance. We’re going to have to have funding for that.”
Williams said the city has drawn up plans to fix its water system, but had never acted on them.
The city also has been contacted by the Mississippi State Department of Health to help assess this year’s crisis.
The longtime city engineer was worried that even after that assessment was completed, that any recommendations made by the health department would not be implemented.
“We have a 1997 and a 2013 water master plan. We have not had funding to implement any of the projects outlined in those plans. I know everybody wants to find a remedy to keep this from happening (again), but we have to look at the historical perspective that this has not always been the case,” he said.
“You look at 1989 when we had an ice storm. Then you look at 2010 going into 2011, times we had major water outages. What funding has put in place for improvements after those events?”
Typically, water and sewer projects would be funded through the city’s enterprise fund. However, because of complications with its billing system, Jackson’s enterprise fund has nearly dried up.
Lumumba said that is part of the reason the city is seeking an additional one-percent sales tax hike.
On Tuesday, the council approved a resolution to ask the legislature for the tax, even though some members still had questions about it.
The mayor addressed those concerns Friday. The tax would be placed on purchases made in the city limits, excluding food and medication.
“We don’t want to tax those things,” he said. “Additionally, it would be exclusively targeted toward our water system.”
He believes the tax could generate as much as $13 million a year, some of which could be leveraged to cover major water and sewer expenses.
Several members of the Jackson legislative delegation were present at the meeting, including Sen. Sollie Norwood, who said the city would likely have to provide the legislature with additional information, including how the Siemens settlement money was used.
Jackson brought on Siemens in 2012/13 to completely overhaul its water billing system.
The work was completed in 2015, but complications ensued. Jackson eventually took the firm and its subcontractors to court, citing the decline in water/sewer revenues brought about by the system overhaul.
Siemens was hired under former Mayor Harvey Johnson, who said the project would be “revenue-neutral,” meaning that it would pay for itself over time.
The city issued nearly $90 million in bonds to finance the work but has yet to recoup that amount. In fact, in 2018, the city’s enterprise fund was nearly bankrupted after city officials learned that more than a third of Jackson’s water customers were not receiving regular bills.
The administration settled out of court for nearly $90 million and has been using the funds to, among other things, correct complications with the Siemens contract.
“Jackson has screwed the pooch when it comes to water billing, complicating an already complicated (situation),” Lumumba said. “On top of that, you have a 30-year-old facility in Curtis, a 100-plus-year-old facility in Fewell, and the fact that you don’t have the regular operation and maintenance revenue you need, will lead to (the system’s) continued deterioration.”
A copy of the expenses included in the mayor’s $47 million request is shown below.