Jackson’s treatment plants closer to being fully staffed, water manager says

City council calls committee meeting to talk water meters, rate structure changes but holds discussions behind closed doors.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 6:07 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - All but one of Jackson’s water plant employees has taken a job with the private contractor brought on to run the facilities, so reports the city’s third-party water manager.

“Everyone working at the plant in water was offered a job with Jacobs,” Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin said. “One [former employee] took a job with a local school district, and one was still considering not taking a job today, but I heard just this afternoon that he’s filling out an application.”

Jacobs is the private engineering firm Henifin has brought on to manage the city’s water system. The firm’s pending takeover of the city’s system means Jackson’s two water treatment plants are closer to being fully staffed.

Meanwhile, workers who have taken on jobs with the company will likely have a little more money in their pockets.

“On average, they had over a $6 an hour increase and some much higher than that,” he said. “They’re feeling pretty darn good about Jacobs.”

It’s unclear how many workers the change-over impacted.

Henifin updated the council on his plans to address the city’s water woes at a committee meeting Wednesday afternoon.

He provided several updates in an open forum, but much of the meeting was held in executive session.

The meeting was called so council members could get an update on the city’s sewer consent decree and on water meter installation.

Henifin said the placement of the meter boxes caught his eye in the November/December timeframe.

“They seemed to be installed pretty high, in many cases, 2, 3, 4 inches out of the ground, and I didn’t think that was probably the way it should be. So, I’ve done a lot of probing around to find out what our standard was, and evidently, we didn’t really set a standard,” he said. “But a reasonable person’s standard on water meter boxes is they should be [even with] the ground.”

[Read: Contractors say meters installed to city specifications; oppose Jackson water manager’s stop work order]

Henifin said he asked someone from the U.S. Water Alliance to look at the meters as well, and that person was unable to find a meter box that was even with the ground.

“I met with the meter contractor in mid-December and expressed my concerns... I told them I didn’t want them to install any new meters until they fixed the old ones,” he said. “So, I thought we could put a pause on the contract.”

Sustainability Partners has contradicted Henifin’s claims, saying the city was OK with the placement of the meter boxes and had to sign off on the installation prior to their use.

Before the discussion continued, City Attorney Catoria Martin recommended going into executive session, citing “potential litigation.”

Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote asked if the council could get an update on the proposed rate structure changes before closing the meeting to the public, but Martin recommended discussing that topic behind closed doors as well.

Henifin is proposing changing the city’s rate structure from one based on water usage to one based on customers’ overall property value.

Bills have been filed in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature to block the plan.

“There’s some pending legislation around that, and so, in the event that it turns into litigation, my recommendation would be [to] go into executive session,” Martin said.

Foote said he’d like to continue the discussion in public but was outvoted.

The closed-door session continued for more than an hour, but no action was taken, Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said.

As for other updates, Henifin told the council that Jacobs is expected to take over water system operations “sometime toward the 20th or 22nd of February, which will [be a] big sigh of relief that we have a full staff of professionals running both plants at that point.”

Jacobs will be responsible for providing operations and maintenance at both the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants. Staffing shortages have contributed to problems at both facilities in the last two years.

Jacobs is currently advertising to open positions on its website.

“And so, [Jacobs will] continue to integrate from that point until about the end of August, when we’ll get a fixed price for the five-year contract,” he said.

Henifin said the city will pay Jacobs “direct for services with a markup” until that contract is in place. Said Henifin, “We don’t want them to give us a fixed price with a lot of risk built into it, because that’s very expensive.”

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