Fewell plant nearly shut down in July as city leaders squabbled over how to pay for chemicals, emails show

Generic image / Tap water
Generic image / Tap water(HNN File)
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 7:37 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A water plant that state leaders called a “workhorse” for its performance during Jackson’s water crisis almost went down this summer after city officials couldn’t come to an agreement on how to pay for additional treatment chemicals needed to keep it running.

Emails obtained by WLBT show that the J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant was in danger of being shut down on July 27, not only because of a lack of chemicals but because city leaders couldn’t reach an agreement on how to pay for more.

Alum is used to treat turbidity, or water cloudiness. When alum falls to a certain level in the tanks, the pumps quit working, explained former Deputy Director of Water Operations Mary Carter.

Carter, who was fired earlier this month amid Jackson’s ongoing water crisis, said she tried to warn the administration of the problem a week ahead of the near-shutdown, but to no avail.

“We were fighting, going back and forth, about them giving us money,” she said. “It’s up to finance to figure out where the money should come from. The only thing I could tell them was we were short on funds.”

At the time, the city had $4,900 left in the chemical line item for the Fewell plant. It would need $150,000 to purchase the additional supply.

Emails show Carter told the Deputy Director of Administration Sharon Thames about the need for more money at least as early on July 19, where she explained to her why she couldn’t use certain funds which were encumbered.

“I have done my part in asking for the requested funds. If you and others feel that the water plants can do without the items mentioned then so be it,” Carter wrote.

It was not until July 27 when Carter was informed by Fiscal Officer Erica Thomas that $150,000 could be transferred from two other line items to make the purchase.

Thomas’ email came about an hour after Carter emailed members of the administration to warn them the plant was only hours away from a shutdown. “Has the money been moved?” she asked. “The well system will have to be shut down tonight. CORRECTION: The J.H. Fewell Plant will have to shut down.”

She says the funds were transferred, an emergency order was written up and alum was trucked in that night, “I think around 7 or 8 o’clock,” she said.

Fewell is Jackson’s secondary surface water treatment plant, located at the waterworks curve. The facility is authorized to treat up to 20 million gallons of water a day.

Jim Craig, a senior deputy and director of Health Protection with the Mississippi State Department of Health, called the plant a workhorse, for its ability to step up production while the city’s main plant, O.B. Curtis, was being repaired.

Former Public Works Director Marlin King blamed the near-shutdown on Carter, who was seeking an additional $2 million in allocations to make it through the rest of the budget year. He said that request didn’t “add up.”

“We start to close out things in July... Outside of emergency items, we pretty much started to shut down so we could switch over budget years. So the question was, ‘how much money do you need to make it through the next two months?’” he said. “We were told she needed almost $2 million. So, the Department of Administration, they said, ‘it doesn’t add up.’”

Jackson’s fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30 the following year. For the current fiscal year, the city council allocated $1,050,000 for chemicals for the century-old plant, 15 percent less the department spent in 2021.

Fewell Plant Chemical Budget 2017 to 2022Amount BudgetedAmount Spent
2022$1,050,000Total unknown

“If you made it with this certain amount of money, if we just average what you’ve been spending on that chemical for the past nine months, why do you suddenly have to have $2 million?” King said. “If you look, there should be an email exchange with Terrence Byrd, where, because he is over the Fewell Plant, he corrected it, what they actually needed, [and it was] approximately $150,000 to carry them through the end of the year.”

Carter said $1,528,053.48 had been spent on chemicals through July 2022, including nearly $341,000 in encumbered money, or funds that were set aside, but not yet paid out, for chemicals it had already received.

King resigned this week, about two weeks after we reported he had demoted as public works director. He stayed on in a deputy position until his resignation.

Acting Public Works Director Jordan Hillman said she would not comment on past occurrences, but said steps are being taken to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen again. Among steps, she’s working to improve communications between teams at the city’s two surface water treatment plants, as well as between plant officials and the city’s budget office.

She’s also going to do an in-depth look at the upcoming year’s budget to see what, if any, changes need to be made. “Unfortuantely, that was already basically done before I jumped into this role, but it’s my intent, sometime in the first month of the budget year, to go revisit it, make sure it’s good and go back to council,” Hillman said. “We also have the ability to move money within categories without going to council. So, if it’s in my supplies category... I can transfer it back and forth.”

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