Jackson water manager calls bill to create water, sewer authority a ‘pure grab for money’

Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 2:38 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson’s water manager is denouncing a bill that would place Jackson’s water system under the control of a nine-member authority, saying the effort is nothing more than a money grab.

On Tuesday, S.B. 2889 passed out of a Senate committee, setting it up for a vote on the Senate floor.

The measure, called the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act, would create a public utility district “separate and distinct from the city of Jackson to assume ownership, management, and control over the water system currently owned by the city.”

If passed, the legislation will transfer the control of Jackson’s water, sewer, and stormwater systems - and control of any money received to approve those systems - to the authorities once the current federal receivership ends.

“They’re clearly trying to get access and control,” said Ted Henifin, the third-party manager. “I do think it’s a pure grab for money.”

The authority would be governed by a nine-member panel, with four representatives appointed by the mayor of Jackson, three members appointed by the governor, and two appointed by the lieutenant governor.

Jackson’s appointees must also include representatives from Byram and Ridgeland, as long as parts of those cities are served by Jackson’s water system, the legislation states.

No part of Ridgeland is currently on Jackson water, according to a previous discussion with Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee.

The authority would be responsible for, among other things, establishing and setting water rates, and making improvements to the water, sewer, and storm drainage systems.

It also would, with the help of Henifin, appoint a president to preside over day-to-day operations.

The authority would take over operations after the Henifin’s time with the city ends, likely within two years, the bill states.

The measure was authored by Rep. David Parker, of Olive Branch. Parker wasn’t immediately available for comment but said in the bill that Henifin supported the idea of an authority.

Bill says the receiver supports creating an authority to govern Jackson water.
Bill says the receiver supports creating an authority to govern Jackson water.(WLBT)

Henifin, who was appointed third-party manager as part of a federal court order signed back in November, says he’s never spoken to Parker, and questions the motive behind creating what is being called a “regional” authority.

He’s particularly concerned about placing the control of Jackson’s water system under the state if it means the state gains control of the nearly $800 million in federal dollars allocated to repair Jackson’s system.

According to S.B. 2889, the nine-member board would have the ability to “apply, contract for, accept, receive and administer gifts, grants, appropriations and donations of money, materials and property of any kind, including loans and grants from the United States... upon any terms and conditions as the United States... shall impose.”

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba recently announced that $795 million had been allocated to the city by the federal government, including $600 million in Congress’ omnibus spending bill passed in December.

Those funds are going into the state’s drinking water revolving loan fund and can be used solely by the city of Jackson to address water system needs.

If the bill is passed in its current form, those funds would fall under the authority’s purview once the authority takes over.

“As a regional authority, much (perhaps all) of those dollars could be invested in the surrounding communities, further expanding and improving services in the region’s suburbs and likely driving further migration out of Jackson,” Henifin said in a statement.

[Read: Business organization calls on the creation of a regional water authority to govern Jackson water]

Lumumba declined to comment for this story but has previously voiced his opposition to the idea of authorities and regionalization.

Like Henifin, he was worried that Jackson’s already limited resources would go toward shoring up water infrastructure outside of the capital city.

“Now you have to take care of their plants. Now you have to take care of their districts. Now you have to take care of all of their infrastructure problems,” he said at a September 12 livestream organized by the People People’s Campaign of Mississippi.

“And you’re under a regionalized system where you have to believe that they’re going to prioritize Jackson over the cities and communities that they continue to [prioritize over Jackson] now.”

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Mississippi State Department of Health are currently being investigated by the EPA Office of External Civil Rights Compliance for Title VI violations related to disinvesting in Jackson, a majority-Black city.

So far, MDEQ has refuted those claims, saying that all of the federal funds Jackson has applied for through its wastewater revolving fund loan program have been approved.

Henifin also argues that a regional authority would not work in Jackson, because of the city’s current financial situation.

Jackson has more than $238 million in outstanding water and sewer debt and an estimated $2 billion in water, sewer, and other infrastructure needs. The city, though, is not generating nearly enough in water/sewer revenues to cover bond service and maintenance costs.

“It’s in terrible financial shape... terrible physical shape,” Henifin said. “Why in the world would anyone with a good utility want to team up with a sinking ship?”

The legislation, though, doesn’t seem to set up a regional authority with other cities. Rather, the authority’s makeup would include members from cities currently served by Jackson.

Byram Mayor Richard White says he likes the idea of an authority, as long as Byram has representation on the authority board.

The city of 11,600 people is served by both Jackson’s surface water and well water systems.

White says that under the current third-party manager, the city has been quicker in responding to main breaks and meter leaks. He says that trend could continue if the water system is transitioned under an authority.

“Things are happening faster. It doesn’t take three or four days, or a week, to fix it,” he said.

That point was evidenced Wednesday, by the time it took for crews to respond to a water main break along Siwell Road. The break occurred that morning, and crews were on the scene that afternoon making repairs.

Crews dig up a portion of Siwell Road to repair a broken water main.
Crews dig up a portion of Siwell Road to repair a broken water main.(WLBT)

White, meanwhile, says the city is still looking at coming off of Jackson’s water system, something leaders there began looking at following the 2021 winter water crisis.

He said Byram is often forgotten during events like that, even though his residents and businesses are without water for days and sometimes weeks.

“We’re right here in the middle of it... And we just need to be appreciated, because we don’t get the water for free,” he said. “If it was free, you wouldn’t have [any] complaints. But it’s not free and we [have] a one-mile area inside our city... where people pay extra money for water and that’s not fair at all.”

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