City, feds refuse to release records showing the math behind recent water and sewer rate increases

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Jackson, Mississippi's seal(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 3:31 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A financial model Jackson city officials cited in their decision to raise water and sewer rates will remain confidential, thanks to a court order.

The city of Jackson and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both denied 3 On Your Side’s requests for a copy of the document and sought a federal court order, in part, to keep from releasing it.

On December 13, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Myers issued a protective order “to protect the confidentiality of certain information” related to the city’s renegotiations of its sewer consent decree.

The order was made effective for all documents and correspondence between parties in the case dating back to October 31, 2021, including the financial model, which records show was submitted to EPA on November 15.

On November 30, the city and the U.S. asked the court for a confidentiality order to block the release of any privileged communications related to the negotiations.

The city and EPA filed for the order after WLBT submitted requests for a copy of the financial model drawn up by Burns & McDonnell, the city’s consent decree consultants.

Leaders cited the model as a reason why the city needed to raise water and sewer rates.

WLBT filed an open record request with the city seeking a copy of the Burns & McDonnell model on November 24.

In a letter dated November 29, the city denied the request saying, “the current position of the Office of the City Attorney is that this information is privileged attorney work product prepared in anticipation of litigation.”

City denies open record request related to consent decree financial model.
City denies open record request related to consent decree financial model.(WLBT)

After the city denied the request, WLBT filed a Freedom of Information Act request with EPA seeking the same information. The request was submitted through the portal.

EPA denied the FOIA on December 28, saying the documents were exempt under the act. “Exemption 7(A) protects from disclosure those documents or information for law enforcement purposes to the extent that the production could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

The agency was referring to the ongoing talks to renegotiate the terms of Jackson’s sewer consent decree.

Jackson entered into a consent decree with EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2013, after the city was cited for numerous violations of federal water quality laws.

At the time, the city estimated that it would take $400 million to address decree mandates. Since then, decree costs have ballooned to an estimated $960 million.

Citing the increased costs, the Lumumba administration has been working for years to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

In November, attorneys for the city and the feds filed a motion to reopen the case in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. U.S. District Judge Tom Lee ordered the case reopened on December 1.

As part of the negotiations, the city submitted a long-term financial planning model, as well as a strategic financial plan.

The city council also approved what is likely the first of several water and sewer rate increases to help cover decree costs.

At a meeting on December 14, the council voted 4-3 to approve a 20 percent hike for water and sewer, with members Virgi Lindsay, Angelique Lee, Ashby Foote, and Brian Grizzell voting in favor. Opposed were Councilmen Kenneth Stokes, Aaron Banks, and Vernon Hartley.

With the rate increases, sewer fees will go from $4.47 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) to $5.36 per CCF. Water will go from $3.21 to $3.81 per CCF.

One hundred cubic feet of water is 748 gallons. The average family of four uses between 320 and 400 gallons of water a day, or between 12.8 and 16 CCFs per month, according to data provided by the United States Geological Survey.

Jackson is proposing a second increase before the start of the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins October 1. That increase would raise fees by another 17 percent.

City Attorney Catoria Martin and City Council President Lindsay declined to comment for this article, both citing “pending litigation.”

WLBT has 90 days to appeal the EPA’s decision.

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