Jackson mayor unveils water bill payment plan for low-income customers

Lumumba at a previous press conference.
Lumumba at a previous press conference.
Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 3:30 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Beginning July 19, customers in Jackson will be able to get some relief from insurmountable water bills.

Monday, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba revealed details of a new plan to help customers who are unable to pay bills that have accumulated either due to the pandemic, poverty, or the city’s billing woes.

“This is a program that is intended to support those that need it the most,” he said. “For all of those people that have told me year after year, ‘I haven’t received a bill,’’ for all those individuals who have said, ‘I have a bill that is too high and I cannot pay it,’ for all of those individuals that have any number of challenges we have seen... I’m asking you to become part of this program.”

Two new payment programs will be implemented.

First is the “Low-Income Assistance plan.” To participate, individuals must pay their current bill for three months. From there, they must pay $10 a month for 24 months on their previous debt.

After that, any remaining balance will be set aside in the city’s books and will no longer be held against the customer.

The second is the “Courtesy Payment Arrangement” program, which is for customers who do not qualify for the low-income plan.

Customers who participate in this program must pay their current bills for three months and then must pay 40 percent of their past due amount over a 24-month period.

Like in the low-income program, the remaining unpaid debt will be set aside on city balance sheets and will no longer go against the customer.

Lumumba also discussed a new flat-rate billing payment plan that will roll out to assist customers who do not receive regular statements.

“If you know you have a balance but have not received a bill, we will put you on a flat rate so you can begin making your payments,” the mayor said.

The city is able to set up these programs thanks to the H.B. 359. The measure went into effect on July 1.

Jackson had announced previously that it would set up a flat-rate billing program, but it was not clear if that program ever was implemented.

H.B. 359, which went into effect without the governor’s signature, allows the city to offer payment plans in certain cases and to stop collections on debt in others.

The measure is similar to a bill that was vetoed by the governor in 2020 but includes significantly more state oversight.

Among provisions, Jackson had to work with the executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities staff to set up program rules before new collection rules could be put in place.

Public Utilities Staff Executive Director Sally Doty commended the mayor and city staffers for helping craft the plan.

“We had great conversations... and worked to come up with the best solution to move Jackson water and sewer forward,” she said.

To qualify for the low-income program, applicants must be participating with the Mississippi Home Corporation’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program; and must apply for assistance from federal and state utility aid programs.

For the courtesy payment program, individuals must also apply for state and federal aid to help pay their utility bills.

The mayor said a special circumstance panel would also be established to help those who have experienced extreme financial hardship, who have billing errors brought about by equipment failures, or are unable to pay due to damage brought about by natural disasters or unforeseen circumstances.

The mayor said the city loses about $20 million a year in uncollected water/sewer revenue and has more than $100 million in uncollected debt overall.

He says about 14,000 customers are currently stranded, meaning they are not receiving regular water bills.

Lumumba says that the problem won’t be addressed fully until the city replaces its water billing system.

Jackson has been struggling with its water/sewer billing system for years, ever since work wrapped up on the Siemens contract.

The city brought on the firm in late 2012 or early 2013 to completely overhaul its billing system. The nearly $90 million contract included replacing all of the city’s water meters, installing new software at the water/sewer administration office, and putting in place a network of transmitters and repeaters that would allow those meters to communicate with the billing office.

Work wrapped up in 2015, but the system has never functioned properly and the city filed suit. In February 2020, Lumumba announced that the city had settled the suit for $89.8 million, or the contract.

In May, the council approved a contract amendment with Sustainability Partners to allow it to begin replacing the Siemens system.

Under the terms of that agreement, Sustainability will put up the initial costs to replace the thousands of residential and commercial meters installed under the Siemens agreement. Once the meters are up and running, the city will pay a monthly fee for each device installed - funds that will go toward maintaining them.

Sustainability had previously been brought on to help the city procure new meters and a new billing system.

It was not known when the new meter installation would begin or if it was already underway.

A copy of the Sustainability contract amendment is shown below.

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