Jackson’s water rate hikes are a must as part of consent decree renegotiations

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:17 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Proposed rate increases for Jackson water and sewer customers are a requirement as part of talks to renegotiate terms of the it’s sewer consent decree, according to city officials.

Ordinances to raise water and sewer rates are expected to be introduced at the Tuesday, Nov. 23 council meeting.

The ordinances will likely be rolled over until the next meeting and voted on at that time, according to city leaders.

If the measures are approved, they would go into effect in 30 days, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

The increases are being proposed to help fund requirements under Jackson’s $960 million sewer consent decree.

”One of the things that we recognize is... the city and the EPA probably have always recognized... that the original consent decree, or the one that we have outstanding now, is that there wasn’t a great deal of discussion of how it would be funded,” he said.

“Our water, our sanitation, our paid-for services... because we have not touched that in years, in addition to the fact that we have failed to collect at a sufficient rate what we are charging, it all leads to the necessity that we look at this now.”

Under the administration’s proposal, sewer rates would go from $4.47 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) to $5.36 per CCF. Water would go from $3.21 per CCF to $3.85.

CCF is 748 gallons of water.

Lumumba says they are the first of what will likely be several planned rate increases in the coming years to help cover decree costs.

The administration is expected to introduce a rate structure plan in the spring.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba
Chokwe Antar Lumumba

The mayor said all the changes are being made in conjunction with its decree consultants and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The city entered the decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and EPA in 2013.

At the time, Jackson agreed to spend an estimated $400 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality law. Jackson was given 17.5 years to complete the work.

Since then, decree costs have more than doubled, while Jackson’s financial situation has worsened.

In the last decade, the capital city’s population has dropped by 20,000 people, going from 173,514 in the 2010 Census to 153,701 in the 2020 count.

Adding to that problem, Jackson has struggled to collect on its water and sewer revenues, thanks to complications with the Siemens contract.

Jackson brought on Siemens USA in 2012 or 2013 to install a new billing system.

The roughly $90 million contract included replacing some 65,000 new water meters, installing new billing software in the city’s billing office, and putting in place a network of repeaters and transmitters to allow the meters to communicate directly to the billing office.

The system never worked and a couple of years ago, the city’s water/sewer enterprise fund almost went bankrupt.

Problems persist to this day. In May, the city reported that some 8,000 customers were not receiving regular statements, while some 14,000 were not making regular payments.

“The only way that our collections are going to improve is by changing out the meters and putting something in that is far more dependable,” he said.

Utility Metering Solutions is now installing new commercial meters in the city and will eventually replace all of the residential meters installed as part of the Siemens work.

Lumumba said that work won’t be done until at least early 2023.

The Lumumba team has been working to address billing and metering issues for about as long as his administration has been working to modify the terms of the consent decree.

Those efforts have centered around extending the time to complete decree requirements, while also hammering out a plan to pay for the work.

Burns & McDonnell, Jackson’s consent decree consultants, recently presented proposed modifications to EPA, which would include implementing a rate hike in the coming weeks and putting in place a fee structure to increase water/sewer rates in the future.

“What we did through the consultant is recommend increasing rates. The first increase we agreed to is that 20 percent increase,” City Attorney Catoria Martin said at Monday’s council work session. “From there on, what the EPA is requiring us to do is a rate structure plan. You will come back and vote on that next March.”

Martin told the council the increase would amount to a roughly $10 increase for the average family of four.

Based on a family of four using the USGS estimate of 80 gallons of water per person per day, water rates would go from $41.18 a month to $49.40, while sewer charges would go from $57.35 to $68.76 a month.

Meanwhile, the consent decree itself could be extended to give the city additional time to come into compliance.

“A great deal of our time has been dealing with how we collect whatever tariff we have,” Lumumba said. “And so that’s where we’ve been over the last few years... Now that we see the end of the tunnel... we have done the requisite homework to look at affordability, the average household income in Jackson and move to us the place where other cities have been for years.”

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