Legislation that will help Jackson deal with high water bills to become law, sans the governor’s signature

Legislation that will help Jackson deal with high water bills to become law, sans the governor’s signature
(Source: WLBT)

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - This is the second year that Gov. Tate Reeves has not signed a bill that would help the city of Jackson better address uncollected water debt.

But this time, he didn’t veto it.

H.B. 359 is slated to become law on April 18, but without the governor’s signature, according to the Mississippi Legislature’s website.

According to the rules of the Senate, a bill will become law if the governor does not veto the measure in the first five days of receiving it during the session or 15 days after the session adjourns, even if he does not sign it.

The measure will give Jackson more flexibility in addressing high bills and uncollectible water debt.

Provisions allow the city to set uncollectible debt into a separate category on its balance sheet, something that could help improve the municipality’s credit ratings.

The bill also allows Jackson’s water department to offer payment plans in certain cases and to stop collections on debt in others.

Circumstances in which the city can stop collections include when bills are incorrect due to equipment failure, process failure, or billing failure; when billing errors are brought about by natural disaster or other emergencies when customers do not receive water; and when it can be “reasonably adjudged” that the customers cannot pay their overdue balances.

In the latter circumstance, the city must require that customers pay a portion of their overdue amounts before it can move the remaining into a special column on its balance sheet.

Many of the city’s billing issues H.B. 359 will help address were brought about due to complications with its Siemens contract. Jackson brought on the firm to completely overhaul its water billing system.

The $90 million contract included replacing all of the city’s residential and commercial water meters with new ones, creating and installing new billing software in the city’s Water Sewer Billing Administration office, and installing a network of repeaters and transmitters to allow meters to communicate with WSBA.

Work wrapped up in 2015, but problems with the new system ensued. In 2017, the city’s enterprise system went nearly bankrupt because bills were not going to customers. In other cases, customers were receiving bills for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

Citing complications, the city filed suit against Siemens and its subcontractors in 2019. In early 2020, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced Jackson had settled the suit for the contract costs.

As for H.B. 359, it is similar to legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Reeves in 2020, as well as a second bill introduced by Sen. John Horhn in the 2021 session, but has significantly more state oversight.

The measure mandates, for instance, that the mayor, public works director, and executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff work together to set up program rules before any new collections policies are implemented.

The deadline for putting those rules in place is July 1 of this year.

Additionally, it requires the city to provide a report on the program to the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, and Mississippi Public Utilities Staff by January 1, 2022.

Among items to be included in that report, the city must provide details on revenue collections, the number of accounts deemed uncollectible, the number of customers participating in installment plans, the number of accounts that are overdue, and the effect the program has on water/sewer revenues.

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