Council urges mayor to bring on a third-party firm to manage water treatment plants
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Members of the Jackson City Council say it could be time for someone else to manage the city’s water treatment plants.
Citing multiple water crises and a growing lack of confidence in the city’s ability to run them, the council approved a resolution Tuesday requesting that the mayor “engage a third-party management company” to run the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.
The measure was approved on a 4-2 vote, with Council members Virgi Lindsay, Ashby Foote, Angelique Lee, and Aaron Banks voting in favor. Opposed were Councilmen Kenneth Stokes and Vernon Hartley. Councilman Brian Grizzell had left the meeting prior to the vote.
Meanwhile, the council narrowly voted down a request from Stokes, the Ward 3 representative, ordering the mayor to bring on a third-party firm.
The decision is being praised by State Sen. John Horhn, who said the resolution could “help correct many of the problems that have plagued the operations of the O.B. Curtis and [J.H.] Fewell Water Plants,” and “greatly assist Jackson legislators in procuring much-needed resources from the state to help address the Capital City’s infrastructure issues.”
The votes come amid Jackson’s latest water crisis. Customers on the city’s surface water system have been under a state-imposed boil water notice for more than two weeks and under a water conservation advisory for nearly two months.
Stokes pushed the council to back his order, in part, because he said the city needs to take immediate action.
“My position is that we need to bring someone on with some experience who can put our water system right where it needs to be,” Stokes said. “We have lost some of the confidence of the citizens in the community and we need to get it back.”
Stokes pointed to a recent letter sent to the city by the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association.
The letter was sent to the mayor and members of the council earlier this month. It highlights the effect “back-to-back city-wide boil water notices” has had on businesses. Some owners say they’re spending hundreds of dollars a day to bring in bottled water, all the while losing customers due to the boil notices being in place.
“If they’re sending us letters and stressing about the amount of money they’re spending, the confidence would be better if we change and go out and privatize the system,” Stokes said. “It’s not like it’s brain surgery. We’re doing it with the wastewater treatment plant.”
The city has a long-term contract with Veolia North America to manage the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. Jackson signed a 10-year agreement with the firm in 2017, according to Veolia’s website.
Jackson still owns the facilities, still sets sewer rates for customers, and still determines what projects will be completed at the plants, Veolia’s Feb. 2017 press release states.
Stokes later amended his order to say a third-party firm that would provide operations and maintenance at the water plants, rather than privatization.
While Stokes pushed his order, Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay introduced a resolution urging Lumumba to “engage a third-party management company - within the confines of the law and as expediently as possible - to assist the Department of Public Works in providing safe drinking water.”
Lindsay told Stokes that she initially considered an order, but said the council cannot order the mayor to enter into any agreement.
City Attorney Catoria Martin also recommended that the council pass a resolution, rather than an order.
Lindsay also explained that any contract for water plant management would likely be very extensive and require the city to go through a lengthy bid or RFP process.
An RFP is a request for proposals. Governments issue RFPs for professional services, such as managing water treatment plants, garbage collection, and the like.
“All of that is going to take a lot of time and effort,” she said, speaking to Stokes. “And, so, I’m just thinking that the first good step is for this council to come together as a body and endorse what I believe is the intent of your order. And that is to look at management options for our water plants.”
For his part, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the council he supports bringing on a management firm but does not want privatization.
He has argued numerous times against privatizing water, saying that Jackson would essentially give up control of its water/sewer enterprise fund and give a private company the ability to set water rates.
“Privatization is, in fact, the selling of the system. And there are white papers and extensive literature that shows [the communities impacted most] are the poor communities,” he said. “With respect to a third-party vendor for a maintenance agreement, we are already on board for that.”
As for third-party management, the mayor said his office has been looking at options. “What we have discovered is that there are varying levels of attractiveness for companies that take on a management agreement,” he said.
“What our recommendation from the U.S. Water Alliance has been that we task out, or do term bids, on the specific things that have to be done at the water treatment facilities,” Lumumba said. “That is, you know, maintenance on the pumps, that is maintenance on the raw water screens, that is maintenance on the membranes... the many points of failure that take place. We’re already doing that.”
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