Legal fees tied to the renegotiation of Jackson’s sewer consent decree topped $101,000 for fiscal year 2022
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Efforts to renegotiate Jackson’s sewer consent decree cost taxpayers more than $101,000 this fiscal year.
Tuesday, the city council approved paying attorney Susan Richardson $101,547 for work done on the city’s behalf in fiscal year 2022 and $4,415.50 for services conducted in 2021.
Richardson is with the law firm of Kilpatrick Towsend & Stockton LLP, out of Atlanta.
“I would call her a subject-matter expert,” said City Attorney Catoria Martin. “Her firm has represented the city of Atlanta in very similar negotiations. She has been incredibly effective in representing the city and its interests with the EPA.”
Jackson entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in 2012.
Under terms of the agreement, Jackson had to make hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to its sewer system to bring it into compliance with federal water quality laws.
The city began renegotiating the decree with EPA under Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, in part, because he argued the decree was too expensive for the cash-strapped city.
Martin told the council Richardson has represented the city throughout its negotiations and attends all of the EPA briefings between city officials and the agency itself.
A federal judge reopened the city’s consent decree in December 2021. The judge also approved a confidentiality order, blocking the release of documents related to the renegotiations.
The city and EPA filed for the protective order after WLBT submitted requests for the financial model drawn up by Burns & McDonnell, one of the city’s consent decree consultants. Leaders cited the model as a reason Jackson needed to raise water and sewer rates.
The EPA denied WLBT’s appeal of the decision back in April. “The withheld documents or portions of documents were compiled for law enforcement purposes for the purpose of enforcing Section 402 of the Clean Water Act,” wrote Quoc Nguyen, acting assistant general counsel for the EPA’s General Law Office at the time.
“The production of these materials could reasonably be expected to interfere with ongoing enforcement proceedings because it would hinder the government’s ability to control or resolve the enforcement proceedings. It [also] would prematurely reveal the government’s strategy,” he wrote.
Currently, Jackson’s long-term financial plan is under review by EPA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, according to city documents.
Attorneys for the city and federal government filed a motion to reopen the decree late last year. As part of the negotiations, the city had to submit a long-term financial plan, as well as a strategic financial plan.
Since the case was reopened, the state and city have submitted two status reports, including one on July 29. According to that report, the city had submitted “its proposed language to modify the current consent decree.” Jackson also provided “an updated long-term financial model to EPA and MDEQ.”
“The long-term financial model provides a tool for EPA and MDEQ to assess the city’s financial condition, including the city’s current and future capability to fund the proposed injunctive relief under the proposed modified consent decree,” the status report states.
According to court records, the financial model takes several factors into consideration, including the capability of residents to pay increased water and sewer rates, as well as Jackson’s ability to issue bonds and take out loans to fund decree mandates.
Estimates show that consent decree costs could run near or above $1 billion dollars. That amount is on top of what the city has to spend to repair its ailing water system.
Last year, city officials estimated that Jackson needed $170 million to address provisions of an EPA agreed order approved by the city council in June. That amount does not include overall water system needs, which have also been estimated to be around another billion dollars.
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