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Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages

Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages
Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages
Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 10:26 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Inside a cozy, peaceful home with a front porch and back deck – away from the bustle of the city – lives Joeann Manuel.

“It’s so quiet; all I hear is my windchimes,” Manuel said.

The 8-10 acres surrounding her is a family-owned property over 60 years old, making it not just a house and more than a home.

“I can’t think of any harder working people than my parents who bought this land,” she said.

There is one part, though, about where she lives that she hates--the roughly one-mile stretch of road leading to her home.

“The street is in horrible, and I mean horrible condition,” Joeann sighed.

What used to be a quick ride up the street is now Manuel’s daily nightmare.

“It’s a one-mile ride from my house to the end of the street,” Manuel said. “It used to take about five minutes. Now, it takes about 45 minutes to get from one end of the street to the other.”

Manuel can’t remember how many times she’s called Jackson’s pothole line or city, county, and state leaders to no avail.

She said the problem started small but is now out of control because it was patched up, not replaced.

That sums up Jackson’s pothole problem.

The city says 90% of its roads are in poor shape.

A Google search pulls up endless complaints, dangerous accidents, and hazardous barricades. Local comedians write songs about the potholes; out-of-towners rant about it.

The problem is a crisis, from police not being able to perform high-speed cases because of it, to a school bus full of kids getting stuck in a giant pothole to South Jackson natives taking matters into their own hands and filling potholes.

Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages
Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages(WLBT)

Why are the roads this way?

The answer varies depending on who you ask.

It’s a matter of inadequate money for roads to Jackson Public Works Director Dr. Charles Williams.

“A lack of funding in a maintenance program is the biggest contributor to road conditions within the city, and also to the underground utilities,” Williams said.

It’s not just about fixing roads, Williams says, but what lies beneath.

“I’m talking about water, sewer, and some drainage - all of that impacts the life expectancy of your road. So, when you’re paving a road, and you don’t address the water or the sewer lines, then you have to come back and make those repairs and cut back into that road, and then if you have poor drainage, and you can’t drain the water out quick enough, it also affects the life expectancy of your road.

Tens of thousands of families felt the gravity of Jackson’s embattled water system in February after a Winter storm froze equipment at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

Many people in Jackson went without water for weeks. As time progressed, we learned about the lack of maintenance at the plant and just how deep of a hole the city was in.

“It would literally cost over a billion dollars to replace Jackson’s entire water system,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

So recent repaving projects, like the approved $1.1M North State Street overlay of Sheppard Road to Briarwood Drive, could prove to be a waste of money if the city doesn’t repair its water system.

“Even if you were to go in and spend a million dollars or more on street resurfacing if you have not made any substantial improvements in those areas [water and sewer], that road itself might last the next 2-3 years, and then you’ll be right back in the same condition that it was before.”

This is the vicious cycle Jackson is swimming in.

What may have been a tadpole-like problem decades ago is now a great white shark. And Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba faces decades’ worth of challenges to navigate the waters.

Lumumba’s why is a combination of factors, including aging infrastructure, leading to a declining population/tax base and a failed water billing system, resulting in less road revenue.

Not least of all, the mayor says bad leadership moves are evident.

“Yes, it is in part, failed decisions,” Lumumba admitted. “And so, I think that what we recognize is that there needs to be a long-overdue focus on infrastructure dollars that not only helps provide sustainable, equitable, and dependable infrastructure, but it also is a means of economic development and economic growth within our cities.”

Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages
Jackson’s pothole war: The dilemma, disparities and key to recoup vehicle damages(WLBT)

Background info

Jackson is primarily responsible for maintaining its roads, not Mississippi Department of Transportation, nor the state legislature.

The two main revenue streams for roads come from a 1% sales tax approved in 2014 and the general budget.

The budget is boosted by property taxes (which are declining) and the water billing system (which is failed). Other revenue streams include the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), approved by the Legislature in 2020. It was a significant development that has led to millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements in Jackson.

Here’s what the city’s spent on roads:

  • $400-500,000 (since 2002, approved by council)
  • $1 million (since 2009, approved by council)
  • $13-14 million (since 2014, one-cent sales tax approved by Legislature)

Jackson has spent more money than ever in the last few years, but multiple water main breaks, sewer connection failures, and 100-year-old pipes that consistently fail, depleting those funds before they hit the bank.

It’s left the city playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe to pick a street-related repair to make.

“What we’re doing is being as creative as we can to address as much as we can, but we need additional support,” Lumumba said. “Everything that we have available to us is not enough, period.”

Lumumba said he’s met with state and national leaders including Governor Tate Reeves, Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann, Congressman Bennie Thompson, Representative Cindy Hyde, Commissioner Willie Simmon and Joe Biden before his presidency.

“I’ve met with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, and I will continue to do so, but we have yet to see the resources we need,” Lumumba said.

And the mayor believes more resources from the state is a reasonable ask.

“Not only are we the capital city, but we are also the economic engine of the state of Mississippi,” Lumumba said. “We are the capital of healthcare for the state of Mississippi, or at least the Central Mississippi area. We have property that is in the city of Jackson that we can’t get tax revenue off because it is state-owned property. Where other capital cities get payment in lieu of tax, we don’t receive that in the city of Jackson.”

But Lumumba is hesitant about raising the 1% tax, which would increase the roughly $14 million the city gets.

“We have considered that, but even that has to be measured with a certain level of discretion because you can’t continue to tax poor people in order to address what you need,” Lumumba said.

Jackson’s finances under a microscope

WLBT looked at the city’s last nine available audits on the state’s website, which shows unstable budgeting, lack of internal controls, and mismanagement of federal grants.

A repeated finding in nearly every audit was a lack of internal control over financial reporting, which is the only way to improve the city’s financial management.

  • Lack of internal controls over financial reporting (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)
  • No documentation to support employees current pay rate, which is a control to ensure employees are paid appropriately (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019)
  • Non-compliance with federal grant requirements (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018)
  • The city had no grants accountant in the Public Works Department, causing improper administration of grants (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)
  • Lack of documentation to support the current pay rate of some employees (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  • The city report did not accurately report revenue, expenses on a federal program (2015, 2016, 2017)
  • Times sheets not signed, approved resulting in lack of verification of time worked, approved (2015, 2016, 2017)
  • General fund reserve amount was below the 7.5% of operating revenues policy adopted by the City Council (2016, 2017)
  • Outstanding customer’s accounts receivable balances not reviewed for delinquency resulting in no tool to estimate potential bad debt
  • Non-compliance with state statutes, which could expose the city to fines for budget violations (2019)
  • Non-compliance with revenue bond agreements
  • Understated revenues and expenditures (2018)

Regionalism, disparity and injustice?

Mississippi Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons believes poor infrastructure is a statewide problem with other factors at play.

“We have kicked the can down the road for years and years,” Simmons said.

The former lawmaker says the state has an infrastructure injustice problem.

Simmons shared with WLBT a letter never made public but addressed to Governor Tate Reeves, Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann, House Speaker Philip Gunn, and lawmakers.

The letter reads in part, “During the past thirty years, the state’s public policies and resources have been grossly distributed inequitably. This inequity in the distribution has cause rural and poor communities to deteriorate economically, lose population and their tax base.”

Hinds County is not outlined in Simmons letter, however, he called the recent legislative session, “the most egregious of the past 30 years” for specific reasons:

  • The Legislature refused to provide new funding for MDOT
  • Attempted to take the $80,000,000 Lottery Funds from MDOT
  • Took the $119,000,000 Congress allocated to MDOT
  • Refused to fund MDOT’s budget request by $26.8 million (2.2%)
  • Failed to pass Compliance legislation that will force MDOT to lose approximately 11 million dollars

Simmons went on to say, “these public policies and inadequate resources are the ‘kiss of death’ for rural Mississippi.”

The state legislature is not responsible for helping cities take care of their roads. The lion’s share of that responsibility falls on each municipality. However, Simmons says the state should do more for more impoverished areas; and he believes it has the authority to do so.

“Some programs that have been put in place the past few years have been effective, however, the legislature and we the Commissioners must work in conjunction and collaboration with the city and the county because neither of us has adequate funds to take care of the infrastructure system,” Simmons said. “So, when we collaborate and work together, we can do more.”

His letter breaks the state into three categories showing the North and Southern Districts receiving significantly more support than Central District for all phases of the 1987 Four Lane Highway project.

Simmons also says areas East of I-55 received $2.8 billion compared to $528 million for areas West of I-55. He said this action has created a regionalism funding system that has been detrimental for the rural communities west of I-55 and in the East Central areas.

The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and transportation committee members were contacted for this story but did not respond – except for Senator Barbara Blackmon - who echoed Simmons’ sentiments.

“The Madison counties of the world, the Rankin counties of the world, the Jackson counties, Harrison County, the Hancock County of the world, the Lee counties of the world, the Desoto counties of the world, they have great tax bases,” Blackmon quipped. “They do not need the kinds of monies that the state of Mississippi invests in them.”

Blackmon also argues that the state could invest more in its capital where federal and state properties reside tax-free.

“If the state of Mississippi were to invest in the Hinds counties of the world, the Lee counties of the world, the Yazoo counties of the world, the Claiborne counties, the Jefferson counties, the Washington counties, the Sharkey - Issaquena counties, those counties along the Mississippi River, we would have a much better economic system,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon believes the bottom line of the matter “is the haves and the have nots, and the state of Mississippi invests in the haves, and the state of Mississippi does not invest in the have nots. The state must recognize that the top can’t rise without the bottom!”

Mississippi Legislature
Mississippi Legislature(WLBT)

Rep. John Hohrn notes that a power struggle in the Legislature keeps the state infrastructure on the back burner.

“We are resource-starved. It’s almost as though they’re trying to starve us out,” Hohrn said. “There isn’t as much leadership as there is followship, and it’s very difficult to gain traction because of the preservation of the status quo.”

Hohrn claims the reality of the root causes of Mississippi’s poor infrastructure is based in, “regionalism, partisanship and race,” however he said even that is no excuse for Jackson’s potholes to stay in bad shape.

“Jackson has got to become more creative and energetic in going after resources at the federal level, and the city is not as aggressive as it should be,” Hohrn said. “Jackson must do a better job to manage what they have.”

Senator Michael McLendon is the only Republican leader who responded to WLBT.

McLendon said the population with the new census has to come into play along with cars driven daily. He also challenged anyone to go to DeSoto County and see how dangerous roads are.

“We are now decades behind in needing the exits on I-55 reworked to accommodate 200,000 tax paying citizens and the widening of the interstate to 8 lanes (4 southbound & 4 northbound) not to mention the two-lane State-owned roads.”

The Highways and Transportation member says skin color is not a factor.

“To say it’s racial, I don’t buy it,” McClendon quipped. “We in DeSoto County, which is majority Republican, have been passed over as well.”

As city and state leaders try to put actions behind words, while Jackson’s water system continues to crumble, Joann Manuel waits.

“No, I won’t give up,” Manuel said. “I won’t stop pushing and calling until something is done.”

What’s in the pipeline to fix Jackson’s roads

Water billing system improvements:

July 19, the city created a plan to improve its water billing system, which causes Jackson to lose about $20 million a year in uncollected water/sewer revenue. It won’t fully address the problem until the city replaces its water billing system, but it will help it recoup some of those costs.

$1.2 trillion infrastructure plan:

Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges. The measure now rests in the hands of the U.S. House. If the bill clears the house, it’s unclear how much money Mississippi will receive and who will distribute it.

Pothole damage?

If you hit a pothole and damage your vehicle, the city could reimburse your repair costs, but it will take some evidence and patience on your part.

Jackson has a Risk Management Division located inside the Richard Porter Building at 218 South President Street, directly across from City Hall.

You can either stop by in person to fill out a claims form or call (601) 960-1039 and ask the city to mail a form.

That action opens a claim, and once an investigator is assigned, you will have to show evidence of the damage, receipts for repairs, and any supporting information, like an eyewitness.

The claim is reviewed, a decision is sent to the city attorney’s office for a recommendation.

There is no appeals process if the pothole damage claim is denied.

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