Senate approves measure that would prohibit property value-based water billing
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A bill that would prevent Jackson’s third-party water manager from charging customers for water based on property values has passed the Senate.
Thursday, the Senate voted 36-13 to approve a committee substitute for S.B. 2338.
The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, where it will again be referred to a committee for further review.
“Right now, we have several municipalities out there that are doing base rates, pie in the sky numbers, so what this bill does is it makes all the municipalities bill their customers based on volumetric usage – actual usage of water,” said Sen. Joel Carter, the bill’s author. “There can be no discrimination... based on classes of ratepayers.”
The bill is one of two that were filed this year in response to the city of Jackson’s water manager to change the billing structure to base rates on assessed property values, rather than the amount of water used.
A similar bill in the House was introduced by Rep. Shanda Yates after she received numerous calls from constituents concerned about the idea.
Jackson currently charges customers a fee for every hundred cubic feet, or 748 gallons used. The proposal introduced by Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin would have charged customers using a formula based, in part, on their assessed property values.
Several senators questioned Carter about the legislation, including District 26 Sen. John Horhn, who asked whether the legislation, if passed, would supersede a federal court order.
Jackson’s water system and water billing system were placed in federal receivership back in November. A third-party manager was appointed to oversee the system as part of a court order.
Henifin has the ability to set water rates, with input from the city council, but in some cases can raise them unilaterally. However, the court order says he must follow state statute.
“That came up in committee. The third-party person... would have to follow state law,” Carter said. “Once this becomes law, if this becomes law, they would have to follow what’s in the bill. Basically, the way they would set rates would be based off actual usage.”
Horhn also grilled Carter on whether there would be any allowances made for cities struggling to fix their existing billing systems. “What if there is a metering system that is not in compliance that is totally unreliable and is only allowing for the collections of about 40 percent of the consumption that is going out there? Are there any allowances made for getting that back into compliance first?”
Jackson has been struggling with billing for years, first due to complications from the Siemens contract, and now with the new metering system being installed by Sustainability Partners.
Carter said there were no allowances. “If the municipality didn’t maintain their system, then they’re going to have to find some way to fix it.”
District 12 Sen. Derrick Simmons, meanwhile, questioned whether the bill had the support of the Mississippi Municipal League.
“Would you be surprised to know that I spoke to the executive director this morning, who said they oppose this legislation?” he said.
“They did an overnight switch on me because they were for this legislation yesterday,” Carter said.
MML Executive Director Shari Veazey said MML was in the process of looking at the changes to the bill made in the committee substitute, “but never had the chance to weigh in on the final version before it was voted on. So, his statement that we supported it was incorrect.”
District 29 Sen. David Blount, who said he does not support changing the city’s current rate structure, spoke out against the committee substitute, which replaced the initial legislation.
“How is this going to work? It says essentially, we’ve got a municipality that can’t figure out what the water bills are. This what they’re supposed to do: they’re supposed to establish a billing method based on the billing average over the six months preceding. How are you going to do that when you don’t know what the bills are?” he asked.
Blount was referring to a provision in the bill that would require cities that cannot determine volumetric usage due to an emergency can base customer bills on the “municipal billing average over the six months immediately preceding the emergency declaration.”
Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency regarding Jackson water last August, after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left people across the city and in Byram without water.
The bill goes on to state that the calculation can be used for six months, and that after that time, the city must revert to usage “based solely upon volumetric usage.”
He also voiced his frustration that despite representing Jackson, he and other Jackson lawmakers were not consulted on the measure. Carter, a Republican, represents Harrison County on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Another bill, which would take would transfer ownership of Jackson’s water system to a state-led authority, was authored by a Republican senator from DeSoto County in North Mississippi.
Jackson, meanwhile, is a majority Democrat city in Central Mississippi.
“What we ought to do, in my opinion, is let the man do his job,” he said, referring to Jackson’s third-party water manager. “I would say to the third-party administrator running the water system that we don’t need to change rates now. We need to get billing under control, get the meters under control and establish credibility with the people who rely on the water system.”
“We don’t need to make changes in governance either when we’re under a federal court order.”
WLBT Reporter Courtney Ann Jackson contributed to this story.
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