Court records indicate EPA, MDEQ will have a say in whether sewer rates will go up in Jackson

(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 12:55 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - As Jackson works to renegotiate terms of its sewer consent decree, it could be looking at increasing sewer rates for its customers.

The October 29 status report submitted to the U.S. District Court of Appeals shows that the city of Jackson was expected to submit its proposed modifications to its sewer consent decree on November 1, and a long-term financial model on how to pay for the modifications by November 15.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that the first deadline won’t be met, but the modifications will be submitted “in short order.” He said communications with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) are ongoing.

The city entered into the decree with the EPA in 2013. The order was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

According to court records, EPA and MDEQ will use the financial model to look at “the financial capability of the citizens of the city of Jackson to pay for increased costs of service and the city’s current and future ability to obtain loan and bond financing to support (the) implementation of the consent decree.”

The model is being submitted as part of the capital city’s efforts to renegotiate the terms of the decree. Both parties are expected to discuss findings in the status report due in February 2022.

The Lumumba administration has been working to modify the decree for years, in part, because it says the city and its residents can’t afford them.

Per capita income for residents in the capital city is around $21,900, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, well below the per capita income of Mississippi ($24,369) and the nation ($34,103).

More than a quarter (25.4 percent) of the capital city’s residents live in poverty, compared to 19.6 percent of the state’s residents and 11.4 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

“Affordability is one of the major tenets of the ongoing modification and the ability to fulfill the decree,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said outside of council chambers. “The problem with the original decree was that it never included a plan on how to pay for it.”

Lumumba said EPA and MDEQ would not require the city to raise sewer rates without discussions with city leaders. “They would speak to us and we would talk to them and submit a proposal to the council, so the best solution could be put in place,” he said.

The mayor declined to comment on camera, saying that the case was still in litigation.

Water and sewer rates were last increased in the city in 2013, under the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba.

The increases came the same year Jackson entered into its sewer consent decree. Under terms, Jackson must bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality law.

Costs associated with the initial order were expected to run around $400 million. Today, decree costs are in excess of $960 million.

The news comes as the city struggles to collect on current outstanding bills and as one of Jackson’s biggest individual sewer customers, West Rankin Utility Authority, comes off of the city’s service.

On September 30, West Rankin switched off the valve carrying wastewater to Jackson’s Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. The materials are now being treated solely at WRUA’s treatment facility on the Rankin County side of the Pearl River.

Jackson also is still struggling to collect bills due to complications with the Siemens contract. This summer, the city told the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff that more than 14,500 customers in the city had not paid their present bills or had past-due charges. The customers owed the city more than $39.7 million, according to a copy of the report provided to the PSC.

In July, the city launched a new water assistance program to help customers that had fallen behind. And in October, the city began a new online way for customers to pay and view their bills.

Jackson also has brought on a contractor to replace the water meters installed as part of the Siemens contract. Jackson hired Siemens Industry in 2012/2013 to replace more than tens of thousands of residential and commercial water meters, install a new billing system at water/sewer business, and a network of repeaters and transmitters that would allow meters to communicate with the billing office.

The system was supposed to pay for itself over time and make it easier for the city to collect on bills and help customers detect water leaks. However, the system never worked, and in 2019, Jackson filed suit against the firm. The suit was settled last year, with the city recouping nearly $90 million in contract costs.

Jackson also must submit a revenue stabilization plan as part of the renegotiation efforts.

Meanwhile, EPA states that Jackson continues to be out of compliance with the administrative order of compliance handed down by the agency this summer.

“The city missed several initial milestones under the AOC but that after discussion and clarification of technical obstacles, the city recently requested extensions of time to comply,” the status report states. “The EPA is presently considering these extension requests.”

It was not known what milestones the city had failed to meet.

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