Court-appointed manager says new water bill rate structure could be on tap for city of Jackson

Published: Dec. 1, 2022 at 4:54 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The 40-year public works veteran put in charge of Jackson’s water system as part of a federal court order handed down earlier this week says it’s still too early to tell, but major changes could be in the works for the way customers are billed for and pay for water.

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge signed off on a stipulated order appointing Ted Henifin as the interim third-party manager (ITPM) over the city’s water and water billing systems.

The order gives Henifin sweeping authority to carry out its mandates, including the ability, in some cases, to raise water rates without city leaders’ consent.

Henifin, who was not involved in crafting the order, won’t rule out a rate increase for customers, but says the real challenge is establishing a more equitable billing structure to ensure water is affordable for the entire population.

“You can’t have 25 percent of your population paying eight to 10 percent of their income for water,” he said. “That’s just not right. So, we’re going to be looking at how we can maybe turn the way water is priced and billed on its head a little bit, so we aren’t overburdening one portion of our population to provide a life-necessary service.”

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that a quarter of Jackson’s 149,761 people live at or below the federal poverty level, which, for a family of four is a household income of $41,625 a year. That same family pays Jackson, on average, about $147 a month for water and sewer.

Henifin mentioned several possible ideas for a new structure, including one based on income.

“Philadelphia has tried an income-based rate model. Other communities are using a lot more assistance for low-income,” he said. “There’s lots of other ways to try to raise revenue.”

The Pennsylvania city of 12.9 million people launched its program in 2017, and at the time was open to customers who earned an income less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

Rates for those customers are based on a percentage of household incomes, rather than usage, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

He said if changes to the billing structure are made, they would be made with the involvement of the mayor and city council, and with input from the community.

“I would get their support first, or at least their agreement to look closer [at the idea] and then socialize that with the community in general to see how it lands with the population,” he said. “And if we’re getting some good, positive feedback, I don’t see why it couldn’t be implemented toward the end of the year.”

Ted Henifin, the court-appointed third-party manager put in charge of Jackson's water and billing systems, discusses the city's ongoing billing challenges.

Henifin, a registered professional engineer who served as director of Public Works for Hampton, Virginia, a city of about 146,000 people, is a senior fellow with the nonprofit U.S. Water Alliance, where he works on the “Equitable Infrastructure Initiative,” according to court records.

That initiative, according to the Water Alliance’s website, is designed to share information on how to invest Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding “that equitably and sustainably supports community health and wealth.”

It was through his role with the alliance that he came to Jackson in September, as a “loaned executive” to help during the water crisis.

In August, flooding from the Pearl River led to pump failures at the O.B. Curtis Plant, leaving tens of thousands of customers without water.

The non-profit was already working with the city on water affordability issues when the crisis began and officials with the group came up with the idea of dispatching “loaned executives” to provide technical assistance.

“There were four of us that have been down there at various times since September. But I was the one there most frequently, just because my schedule is more flexible than the rest,” he said.

“It’s a little hard to just drop your life if you’re not retired.”

The court says Henifin’s experience will serve him well in the herculean task of implementing the stipulated order’s mandates, including beginning work on a lengthy priority project list included with it.

Priority projects include hiring a vendor to run the system, developing a comprehensive plan to winterize the city’s two water treatment facilities and continuing work on a membrane enclosure at O.B. Curtis, completing a corrosion control plan for both treatment plants, and implementing an “alternative water source plan,” to enable the city to provide residents with water in the event of another crisis.

Henifin says part of that will include “strategic contracting” to supplement city staff. He already has brought in resources from Jacobs Engineering to fill in the gaps once the state’s contract with Hemphill Construction ends.

Hemphill was brought on the by the state to help respond to the city’s water crisis. The Florence-based firm’s current contract was set to end seven days after the ITPM was made effective.

“We have lined up through an arrangement we already started with the U.S. Water Alliance to get a couple of resources on the ground. And we’ve accelerated that,” he said. “In fact, they’re at the O.B. Curtis plant today.”

Henifin says if the stipulated order is implemented successfully, the city could possibly avoid a consent decree. A decree would likely come with fines, deadlines and oversight not required in Tuesday’s order.

“So, that is part of the goal. And that’s my goal,” he said. “If we can avoid that and find a forward without it, I think that would do Jackson well. It would do the country well and would do all your water-drinking folks well.”

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