City Council decision could mean $70 million for Jackson’s water, sewer needs

Jackson City Council discusses water issues at a previous meeting.
Jackson City Council discusses water issues at a previous meeting.(WLBT)
Published: Sep. 9, 2022 at 11:42 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A recent decision by the Jackson City Council could translate into as much as $70 million for the city’s beleaguered water and sewer systems.

Thursday, the council voted to spend all remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds on water and sewer.

The motion, which was made by Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes, was approved on a unanimous vote, and comes as Jackson and the state continue to dig the city out of an unprecedented water crisis that impacted more than 150,000 people.

It also comes about two weeks after Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann urged Jackson to use its ARPA money to take advantage of a state grant program that would provide matching funds for eligible water and sewer improvements.

Jackson has an estimated $27 million to $35 million in ARPA funds remaining. If the city receives a dollar-for-dollar match on those funds, it would have between $54 million and $70 million for infrastructure.

Estimates provided to the council last year showed that it would take up to $170 million to bring the city into compliance with an EPA administrative order governing the water system. That amount included $50 million to $70 million in improvements at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility and $100 million for distribution system upgrades. Those amounts do not take into account damage that has occurred at the plant since or the latest water crisis.

Federal officials are currently working with Jackson to draft plans for immediate and long-term plans for Curtis.

Stokes cited the lieutenant governor’s request when he urged his colleagues to vote in favor of the motion. Hosemann sent a similar letter to the county, asking that the board of supervisors also consider using their ARPA money to help with Jackson’s water.

“We can’t go to the legislature, to the state, asking them to help us, and when they’re trying to give us directions, we ignore them,” he said. “The match that the state was planning on giving to the city of Jackson... now we’ve got it in writing. It’s not just word of mouth. He said the state legislature has authorized a match of 100 percent of your ARPA funds, which are devoted to water and sewer. It’s in writing... If we can hold them to 100 percent matching us, we need to do it.”

During the 2022 legislative session, the state set aside $450 million of its own ARPA money to create a competitive grant program to provide cities and counties with matching funds for qualifying infrastructure projects. Provisions state that local governments would receive a dollar-for-dollar match for any ARPA monies they used for the work.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that is administering the program, began accepting applications on September 1.

The measure was approved on a unanimous vote. “The challenge now is to find out what has been spent and what has been allocated,” Council President Ashby Foote said. “That’s the thing they have to check on by next week, to find out exactly what has gone out versus what was intended to be spent on a particular project.”

APRA was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021. Under the measure, states, cities, and counties would receive direct allocations of funding from the federal government, which it could use for various projects, including infrastructure.

Based on population, Jackson received a little more than $42 million, which came to the city in two $21 million tranches.

Of that, Jackson spent around $5.8 million to give police and firefighters “premium pay,” and gave the Jackson Convention Complex $570,000 to help management make up for budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city also spent about $12.7 million on infrastructure, with about $8 million going toward installing a new 48-inch water main to improve water service in South Jackson.

Due to its distance from Curtis, South Jackson is one of the areas hit hardest by the city’s ongoing water issues, meaning when problems occur, residents there are often the first in the city to lose pressure.

Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka was unable to provide council members with how much funding was left at Thursday’s meeting, saying he had previously provided that information.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said, based on her notes, Jackson had close to $35 million in ARPA remaining. That amount also included $4 million set aside for the “Mid-Farish Soul City Market” and $3.9 million the administration was planning to spend to purchase a new building to house the Charles Tisdale Library.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city is in talks to buy the former Batte Furniture building to house the library, which was closed in April 2017 due to black mold and flooding issues.

Foote didn’t support purchasing the Batte building, saying Jackson doesn’t take care of the buildings it already owns. He also suggests the Jackson/Hinds Library System reach out to Jackson Public Schools about utilizing unused space in the district.

“Whatever we’ve got planned to spend that’s not on infrastructure, that needs to be pulled back and not spent on whatever it was,” Foote said.

Malembeka, though, said even if the city dedicates its funding to water and sewer, “it is still not a guarantee that we will receive the entire match from the state,” he said. “The fact that they’ve made it competitive, we need to bear that in mind as well.”

At a press conference with EPA officials earlier this week, Gov. Tate Reeves said the state would prioritize Jackson’s applications for funds associated with work at the Curtis plant.

Ward 5 Councilman Vernon Hartley said not setting aside its unspent ARPA funds could result in the state not providing assistance. “They’re going to ask us what we’ve done with that money that’s more important than drinking water and our other issues,” he said. “We have to have some type of justification as to why these things are important.”

Some council members initially considered holding off on Stokes’ motion until it could get an exact accounting for how much ARPA money remained. However, he urged members to approve it anyway, saying he doesn’t want the city to potentially miss the window for applying for the funds.

“If we wait too much longer, we’re going to miss that opportunity,” he said. “So, we can use a catch-all phrase, [whatever] money is available.”

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