Jackson faces ‘uphill battle’ in getting the state to help fund water and sewer repairs
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - During a mayoral debate at the height of last year’s water crisis, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba lashed out at Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann for what he said was an effort to extort the capital city.
“We had a conversation that lasted for about an hour and a half, and he asked everyone to leave the room only to say, ‘Mayor, I need you to give me my airport and I look at it for about $30 million,” Lumumba said. “Not only am I supposed to be dumb, (but) I’m also supposed to be cheap.”
The mayor didn’t say when that conversation took place, but his comments underscored what has been a long-standing adversarial relationship between the state’s largest city and state government, and one that some say has prevented Jackson from getting the help it needs to fix its crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.
This year, the city is again faced with the uphill battle of getting lawmakers to help, even as the state has more than $3 billion in unencumbered federal funds and budget surpluses it could draw from.
The House recently passed H.B. 1031, which would dedicate $40 million to help address water and sewer problems in Jackson.
However, if the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law, that money won’t go directly to Jackson, but rather to the Department of Finance and Administration, which will determine how the dollars will be spent.
At the same time, the city will be required to ante up funds of its own, with Rep. Shanda Yates, the bill’s author, saying the $40 million, coupled with the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, would address the most pressing problems with its water and sewer system.
Jackson will receive approximately $42 million in ARPA funds. The city’s first $21 million tranche was received last year. About $5 million of that remains. Jackson should receive the second $21 million by July.
Jackson already spent about $12.7 million of the first tranche on infrastructure work, with $8 million going to install a 48-inch water transmission line to serve South Jackson, $1.8 million going toward sanitary sewer evaluation services, and $950,000 going toward design and construction administration for projects at the water treatment facilities.
The next tranche, coupled with the $40 million from the legislature, would cover about half of the items it included on its legislative wish list.
“We would be looking at enough to make repairs that are needed to both water treatment plants, to replace the two-inch water distribution pipes throughout the city, which are the smallest diameter pipes as I understand it... causing a good portion of the distribution problems... and make significant improvements that are needed to the West Bank Interceptor sewer project as well,” Yates said.
“I think that this will be a great litmus test for that. If we can show that this $40 million is used effectively, efficiently, and responsibly, then that is a great look for me or other legislators who are here to come back and say, ‘look, we got this $40 million. We did exactly what we said needed to be done with it. We have these... projects next that need to be tackled. This is how much we need, let’s do it.’”
The first-term lawmaker said the amount was a reasonable ask and that it was an “uphill battle” convincing some legislators to invest state money in the capital city.
“There are just issues that certainly predate me in the legislature, that predate many of the people that are here, that predate many of the people that are in leadership at the city of Jackson... Those things just have to be overcome,” she said. “We have to fight against perception. We have to fight against things that have happened previously.”
Some city leaders question why that money has to be controlled by the state. “We simply want to work with everyone. And we simply want to improve the conditions in Jackson,” Lumumba said. “And hopefully, we will have a coalition of the willing that is willing to meet us halfway.”
State leaders, though, are wary of cutting Jackson a check and point to the city’s record of mismanaging its water and sewer systems.
“There’s a growing lack of confidence in the city’s ability to operate the system. Ratepayers and citizens of Jackson are skeptical. The state is skeptical. It seems to me that the federal government is also skeptical,” District 26. Sen. John Horhn said.
One example of that was the city’s Siemens contract, which was put into place about a decade ago to revamp the city’s water billing system. The nearly $90 million contract included replacing the city’s analog water meters with new electronic ones, installing new software at the water/sewer business office, and putting in place a network of repeaters and transmitters that would allow the meters to communicate with the new software.
However, the new system never worked, with some customers going months or years without receiving bills. Court records, meanwhile, showed that the contract was overpriced due to payoffs to subcontractors.
Mismanagement also was cited by the West Rankin Utility Authority in its decision to come off of Jackson’s system and by Byram Mayor Richard White, who said his city was looking to put in place its own water system.
“The last couple of years, with their service and response to everything... They are not doing everything they’re supposed to be doing as far as taking care of our water situation,” White said. “We’ve been without water for several weeks at a time... It’s just frustrating to have to put up with this.”
“At the heart of it all is a question of management,” Horhn said. “Can the city of Jackson properly manage its water and wastewater system? If you look at the evidence before us, there are some big questions about it.”
Exactly who is at fault for Jackson’s water woes, though, is not clear-cut.
Lumumba has blamed the state for the problem, in part for not providing much-needed financial help. The mayor, for instance, made a personal plea to Gov. Tate Reeves last year seeking $47 million to help with “immediate repairs and improvements” during last year’s crisis.
However, that request was not acted on.
When help is provided, Lumumba and previous mayors have lamented the fact that there are always strings attached. When lawmakers approved allowing the city to have a one-percent infrastructure tax more than a decade ago, the law required a commission to be put in place to determine how funds would be spent.
And last year, when, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the city to help address uncollectible water debt, they required Jackson to submit a plan to the state’s Public Utilities Staff on how it would address that debt.
The reason for all the oversight? Some say it’s the mayor’s public comments.
Lumumba upset many state leaders last spring when he told local and national media outlets that state agencies located within the city limits do not pay for water or sewer. About 25 percent of the buildings in downtown Jackson are owned by the state.
Lumumba eventually backtracked on those statements, even sending a correction to The New York Times, which had reported on the city’s water crisis. However, one member of the Jackson delegation told WLBT that the damage had been done.
The mayor isn’t the only one who has made antagonistic comments. While Lumumba was pointing his finger at the state, Lt. Governor Hosemann told the Mississippi Free Press that the city had done little to maintain its water system since Kane Ditto, Jackson’s last white mayor, left office.
Ditto’s successor, Mayor Harvey Johnson, took exception to Hosemann’s claims, saying the city invested nearly $150 million in improving the water system during his time in office.
“We refurbished the J.H. Fewell Water Plant... When I came into office, we were under a consent decree to stop putting pollutants in the Pearl River... we corrected that. We expanded the O.B. Curtis Treatment Plant, the one that’s in Ridgeland, doubled its output capacity. We constructed a 54-inch express main from O.B. Curtis to Fewell to try to get a tie into the distribution system that was already in place. We came up with a systematic way of replacing transmission lines. We acquired rights-of-way,” he said. “So, there were a number of things that happened.”
Johnson, who is Black, served two consecutive terms from 1997 to 2005, and a non-consecutive third term from 2009 to 2013.
According to the water master plan completed by Neel-Schaffer during his final year in office, the city invested more than $129 million in projects during that time.
However, engineers determined that even with those improvements, the degradation of the water system continued.
“Unaccounted for water has increased from 19 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2012. Rates of repair to the city’s pipeline system are over 9 times higher than the national average for similar-sized cities,” the report stated.
As costs for the city mounted, revenue began drying up. In 1997, the Mississippi Supreme Court de-annexed property south and north of the city limits.
“The Supreme Court de-annexed Byram about 20 miles, de-annexed five square miles in Madison County, and refused our petition to re-annex,” Johnson said. “So, what did that do? We lost probably 10-12,000 people, but it also stymied our growth to the south and to the north.”
Johnson said those customers in the de-annexed areas stayed on Jackson water, but no longer paid property taxes, cutting into the city’s ad valorem revenue.
The Supreme Court’s decision to de-annex also came as the city was experiencing suburban flight. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that between 1980 and 2000, the city’s population fell from a recorded high of 202,895 people to fewer than 185,000. Since 2000, the population has dropped even more, to 153,701 people last year.
White flight was already happening but accelerated following the 1979 Easter Flood. “That just took the wind out of Jackson. People left, there was already racial turmoil... houses got flooded in Northeast Jackson and people started moving to Rankin County and Ridgeland,” the former public works official said. “It had an unbelievable impact.”
“Jackson had to deal with the Clean Water Act... dealing with a flood and losing a tax base,” he said. “And the last thing is that right there...it’s pronounced ‘insouciance.’”
He pointed to a post-it note with the word scribbled on it.
“Over time, you just accept it the way it is. Jackson didn’t have the organization to deal with all this, couldn’t fund it, couldn’t satisfy every creeping edict from MDEQ to comply with the Clean Water Act. Then, they passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is controlled by the Health Department... After a while, you just can’t do it all.”
Johnson, meanwhile, said many of the people that remained in the capital city couldn’t afford to pay higher rates to address water and sewer system mandates.
“Our poverty rate in the city of Jackson was at the time, and probably still is, higher than the state of Mississippi. Now, remember, the state of Mississippi is often called the poorest state in the nation,” Johnson said.
Jackson’s median household income in 2020 was $38,888, about $6,000 less than the state’s median income, census data shows. The per capita income for the city, meanwhile, was around $21,906, compared to $24,369 for the state.
As for the poverty rate itself? More than 25 percent of the capital city’s inhabitants live at or below the poverty line, compared to 18.7 percent of people statewide.
“You have a state capitol with a poverty rate higher than the poorest state in the nation,” Johnson said. “Trying to use the user base or get resources from the user base to make improvements to the system was very difficult.”
The federal spigot being shut off didn’t help, either.
Said Johnson, “Starting in the mid-1990s, the federal government got basically out of the grant-making business for infrastructure projects, and they started channeling money to the states. The states then would loan money to municipalities for improvements.”
For Jackson, those loans piled up. Between 2011 and 2016, the city had $238.6 million in outstanding water and sewer debt, according to its bond catalog.
Since that time, Jackson has borrowed additional money for water and sewer work, including a $30 million State Revolving Loan to do work at the Savanna plant and a $19 million SRF loan to do work on the West Bank Interceptor.
“There’s a big difference between a grant and a loan,” said Johnson. “So, although we were receiving some money, we had to pay it back.”
And all this began with a law passed a half-century ago.
In 1972, Congress passed what is now known as the Clean Water Act, which led to the construction of the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant to treat sewage from Jackson, Madison, and West Rankin counties. At the time, EPA offered to pay 75 percent of the costs to construct the plant.
However, in the 1980s, Congress ended those grants, and municipalities like Jackson had to raise water and sewer rates to cover costs.
Jackson also had to shoulder the burden of maintaining the plant, with little help from the suburbs.
“The other cities simply paid their bill and didn’t really worry about it. And as Jackson aged, (its) infrastructure aged, Jackson had to issue the bonds to pay for all the wastewater facilities. (Jackson) had to manage all of that and had to share those costs with those cities... but Jackson had to saddle up and do all the hard work,” said a former Jackson public works official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was a horrible (deal).”
Meanwhile, he said efforts to create a regional wastewater authority to better manage the Savanna plant fell on deaf ears. “It didn’t happen because the Rankin County citizens and leadership and South Madison County didn’t want to tie up with Jackson,” the public works official said. “It was money. But also, there was the fact that Jackson was controlled by Blacks. It’s just plain and simple.”
West Rankin Utility Authority attorney Keith Turner, though, said his group did attempt to work with Jackson, especially when it came to addressing its sewer consent decree.
Jackson entered into a consent decree with EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 or 2013 to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws, which were being violated due to prohibited discharges at the Savanna plant and due to problems with sanitary sewer overflows.
Overflows occur when untreated sewage leaks out of the sewer system and gets into the environment. Under the decree the city is fined for each SSO that reaches waterways like the Pearl River and its tributaries. Prohibited bypasses occur when untreated or undertreated wastewater is discharged from the Savanna plant into the Pearl.
The city initially said the decree would cost about $400 million to address. However, it is expected to cost the city an estimated $960 million.
Turner said WRUA saw the enormity of the decree early on and wanted to work with Jackson on how to address them. However, Jackson wasn’t having it. “They really were basically, ‘you’re a customer. (We will) take your wastewater and that’s it.’”
The past aside, Johnson says Jackson’s suburbs and the state can’t afford to let Jackson die on the vine. “The suburban community just can’t sit back and let Jackson decay and dry up. Because once that happens, then the whole suburban area is going to be impacted and is going to be its demise.”
After the story was originally published, Leah Smith, deputy chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann provided this statement: “Citizens’ safety and welfare continue to be a priority. We are working with the Jackson delegation in the Senate to continue to assist our capital city in many areas.”
This is the third part of a three-part series on Jackson water. Click here for part two.
Updated from an earlier version.
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