Could your home’s value determine your water bill? A proposal from Jackson’s water manager could make that a reality

Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 9:56 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - An idea floated by Jackson’s new water manager could mean no more bills based on faulty meter readings.

But it also could mean paying more for water depending on how much the tax assessor says your home is worth.

At a private meeting Sunday, Jackson Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin shared details of what he called “property value-based billing,” which would base a customers’ water bills on the assessed value of their home.

Henifin, who was put in charge of Jackson’s water and water billing systems under a federal court order, says the plan would make the city’s rate structure more equitable.

However, he says he’s open to other ideas and says more questions have to be answered before any plan can be implemented.

“I like to tell people that I worked for a man who always said he reserved the right to be smarter tomorrow,” Henifin said. “And that’s because you take in information from other people.”

Currently, customers are assessed a flat $3.81 for every 748 gallons of water used. The Jackson City Council approved the rate increases in December 2021.

Henifin argues that the current rate structure places a greater burden on lower-income families, a weight that could be lifted under a property-value driven program. Meanwhile, he said caps would be put in place to ensure bills would not be artificially high.

Despite the prospects of possibly paying more for water, some Northeast Jackson residents back the idea.

“Something needs to be done. The system we have now is not working. The meters we have now are as bad as the other ones,” said Charles Waterloo, a Robert Drive resident. “I think it’s great.”

Waterloo, who was at Sunday’s meeting, referenced the meters installed as part of the Siemens contract. “My [house] meter measured one way and my sprinkler meter measured another way,” he said.

The city hired Siemens about a decade ago to completely overhaul its billing system. The work included replacing all of Jackson’s analog water meters with electronic ones and installing a series of repeaters and transmitters that would allow the meters to communicate with the city’s billing office.

The system never worked, customers quit receiving regular statements and Jackson’s water billing enterprise fund almost went bankrupt as a result.

Jackson brought on Sustainability Partners in May 2021 to replace the Siemens meters, and revenues increased.

In October, consultants told the city council that about half of the new devices had been installed, and revenues on the year were about $8.7 million higher than the fiscal previous year.

While revenues are up, many of the new meters will have to be reinstalled, after Henifin says they were put in the ground incorrectly.

“I officially ordered them to stop installing them just before Christmas,” he said. “They stick up way too high in most people’s yards... They need to get them back to where they should be, which is flush, which means they’ve got to dig out and rework them. A lot of work to happen to make all that work.”

It’s unclear how reinstallation efforts will impact revenues in the future.

A prototype of the new water meters planned for the city of Jackson.
A prototype of the new water meters planned for the city of Jackson.(Special to WLBT)

It’s issues like that that drive Northside Sun Publisher Wyatt Emmerich to support a property value-based pay structure. Emmerich, who also attended Sunday’s meeting, said he was skeptical of the idea at first, but said Henifin sold him on it.

Initially, the third-party manager was only supposed to be responsible for the water system. However, the council asked at the last minute that the ITPM be responsible for billing as well.

“We don’t need Ted Henifin to be distracted with the billing department, you know. That needs to be resolved, and he’s figured out a way to do it,” he said. “We need him out finding these leaky pipes and fixing [them].”

Jackson loses as much as 30 million gallons of water every day through leaks in its distribution system, placing additional stress on the city’s fragile water treatment plants.

The impact of that lost water was perhaps best illustrated during Jackson’s Christmas water crisis, when tens of thousands of customers temporarily lost water after more days of sub-freezing temperatures led to numerous main breaks.

It took more than a week for water to be restored across the city, and two weeks for all boil water notices issued in conjunction with the crisis to be lifted.

Emmerich says Henifin should take his idea a step further and attach water bills to customers’ property taxes.

“We don’t have a property tax collection problem. We’ve got dozens, I mean, 100 years’ experience in enforcing and collecting property taxes,” he said. “That’s a collection system that works. Let the water billing, and for that matter the garbage, glom onto the property tax... And then you solve the problem.”

However, some questions remain, including how a property value-driven structure would impact rental properties. Census Bureau figures show that just 47.8 percent of households in the city are owner-occupied.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that a rate structure not based on water usage could harm water conservation efforts. Jackson has been under a state-issued water conservation advisory since June, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health’s website.

Henifin says the conservation argument is “hollow” when Jackson is losing so much water through the distribution system.

“For this population, we should be in the 15 to 18 million gallons a day, and we’re putting 45 million out in the system,” he said. “So, it’s not that people using it and wasting it. We’re wasting it.”

“If we had a little more constant source of revenue to reinvest in the system, we can probably save 10 to 15 million gallons a day, he said.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay, who also attended Sunday’s gathering, also wants more information. “It is something that needs additional work and research and I look forward to the council being fully briefed.”

Under the interim stipulated order, Henifin has the ability to raise water rates in certain cases without the support of the city’s elected leaders. He also says that’s he’s not going to push a plan that doesn’t have the public’s backing.

“I’m not here to jam proposals down anybody’s throat,” he said. “So, you know, we’d go back and look for another alternative.”

Investigative Reporter C.J. LeMaster contributed to this story.

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