Reeves says Jackson mayor’s ‘radical gambit’ could cost state help in fixing water system

Announcement claims Lumumba will no longer cooperate with state-led team working to restore, stabilize Jackson water.
Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 1:02 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The battle between the governor and the mayor of Jackson again could be heating up, with the governor threatening to cut state assistance if the city fails to cooperate in hiring a third-party firm to run its water treatment facilities.

In a Monday news release, Gov. Reeves announced he had been informed that Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba refused to work with state and federal experts to select a water operator for its two water treatment plants and well facilities.

He goes on to say that the decision not to cooperate would be a “huge mistake” for the city and would likely cost it state help in restoring and maintaining its water system.

“The state has poured millions of dollars from taxpayers of every county into this effort to rescue the city from a crisis of incompetence. If the politicians of the city of Jackson are determined to reject every helping hand and regulatory enforcement action, they will find themselves in an even worse situation,” Reeves says. “Although politics is clearly his priority, we are simply trying to ensure that Jackson water does not fail again. Ultimately, it may fall to the city council to rein in this radical gambit.”

Reeves, in a release that appears to be another salvo in the back-and-forth between the two elected leaders during the water crisis, also intimates that if the mayor is left to his own devices, he’ll attempt to influence what firm receives the contract.

“He has proven time and time again that the benefit of the doubt cannot be given on contracts and water issues. I hope that he will reconsider this dangerous maneuver. The people of Jackson cannot afford another critical water failure due to a contract dispute akin to his garbage debacle.”

The city has been embroiled in a bitter legal battle over who will haul Jackson’s residential garbage. Attorneys for the city council recently announced that it had reached a settlement with Richard’s Disposal to pay the firm for work done since April 1.

Lumumba released a statement Monday afternoon rebuffing the governor’s accusations, saying, “The city of Jackson has made no mention of ending the city’s cooperation with the Unified Command Structure. In fact, we continue to work closely with the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi State Department of Health.”

The Unified Command Structure is the team that responded to the city’s water crisis. It worked to stabilize the city’s water system throughout September and is still working at the city’s water plants as of October 17.

“What the city will not do, is agree to a Request for Qualifications, without the entire Unified Command Structure, which includes the city, having had an opportunity to first contribute, revise or approve the language,” he continued. “The funds that will be used to hire any firm working at the water treatment facilities will come from the City and its citizens.”

Reeves said the Department of Health had the city review the technical components of the RFQ. However, city officials say the city never saw a final version of the full document.

The mayor said that the city, along with those who are invested in the repair and maintenance of the water treatment facilities, “will have the final say.”

“Instead of issuing erroneous new releases, we invite the Governor to have an actual conversation with City leaders and our federal partners about the City’s water treatment plants,” he concluded. “We have been ‘going it alone’ after years of asking for state support. We appreciate state leadership finally stepping to the table and supporting the residents of Jackson. We look forward to productive conversations that lead to an actual agreement…. instead of a headline.”

Reeves did not say why the mayor would not cooperate, nor did he mention the mayor’s name in his press release. Spokeswoman Shelby Wicher could not be reached for comment.

The announcement comes more than a month and a half since the state took over operations at the Curtis plant, after equipment failures there left tens of thousands of people without water.

It also comes just days after the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced it had issued a request for qualifications for a firm or firms to operate and maintain the city’s water facilities for the next 12 months.

According to the release, the RFQs will be reviewed by the city of Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi State Department of Health, which will all work together to select the vendor.

“President Joe Biden’s EPA pressed the state to prepare a request for a water operator and take the lead in the logistical process of procuring it,” Reeves adds. “The Department of Health had the city review the technical components of the request.”

Reeves said the vendor would not report to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency or his office and would only continue the work the state began in late August.

“Throughout this emergency, we have had to procure chemicals, workers and materials for the city routinely because they were incapable of doing so,” the release states. “This is a continuation of that process in an unbiased way - led by technical experts.”

To date, the state has spent more than $12 million in responding to the city’s water crisis. On Friday, the city received quotes to repair two high service pumps at Fewell. MEMA Director of Communications Malary White said WLBT has to file an open record request find out details about those quotes.

Meanwhile, she says MEMA is still continuing to work at the city’s plants, with Executive Director Stephen McCraney approving “thousands of dollars in purchase requests for equipment for the water treatment facilities.”

“The state is still here in this response,” White said.

Reeves issued an emergency declaration regarding Jackson’s water on August 30, a day after he announced MEMA and the Mississippi National Guard would be deployed to assist in the crisis.

Provisions state that the declaration shall “exist and remain in effect until such time as the pumps at the plant are brought back into service, necessary maintenance and/or repairs are performed, and adequate staff is hired on a contract basis to operate the plant, or the threat to public safety shall cease to exist.”

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.