‘Plantation politics’: Mayor critical of bill taking over Jackson water, sewer systems

Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 4:27 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba invoked visions of the Old South when he called out the state for its attempted takeover of Jackson’s water system.

At a press conference on Monday, Lumumba was critical of S.B. 2889, a bill that would wrest control of the city’s water, sewer, and stormwater systems and place them under the control of a nine-member authority.

Lumumba called out state leaders for the bill, comparing the state to “a colonial power taking over our city.”

“It’s plantation politics. Every time there is mention of the city of Jackson, there is some parental force that they believe is supposed to be some overseer of the city of Jackson,” he said. “It is absurd. It is racist. It is all of those things.”

Last week, the bill passed out of the Senate Economic and Workforce Development Committee. The measure, which was authored by DeSoto County Sen. David Parker, would transfer ownership of the city’s systems to the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility.

The committee is chaired by Parker and includes two members of the Jackson delegation: Sens. Walter Michel and Sollie Norwood.

Parker, who represents DeSoto County, says the bill is not about the money, but about creating an exit plan to take on the water system once the federal receivership ends.

“I would like there to be a structure in place so that after those expenditures are made, and the improvements have been made, the system is left in good hands and prepared to move forward after that,” he said. “So, the bill is about what happens next, not about what happens now.”

The utility would be governed by a nine-member board, which would have four members appointed by the mayor, three members appointed by the governor, and two appointed by the lieutenant governor.

Lumumba says the bill is another example of the ongoing discrimination the majority-Black capital city has faced at the hands of the state.

“You have other cities that have a 1-percent sales tax that supports their infrastructure. They do not have a commission that is lording over the decisions of that city like the city of Jackson,” he said.

Lumumba was referring to Jackson’s one-percent infrastructure sales tax, a special one-percent levy placed on most commercial transactions in the city limits. He did not say what other cities have a one-percent tax. A 10-member oversight panel must ensure that spending complies with a one-percent master plan.

Jackson also was singled out under legislation creating the Mississippi Municipality and County Water Infrastructure (MCWI) Grant Program.

The program was established last year to provide cities and counties across the state with matching dollars for every ARPA dollar they used to make water, sewer, and stormwater improvements. The program is funded with a portion of the state’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The legislation required that all funds awarded to the Capital City be deposited in a special account and awarded to Jackson only after the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality approved releasing them for reimbursement. No other municipalities have to submit to that requirement.

“They say that we don’t believe in giving Jackson money without oversight. First, let’s be clear: when you talk about things like a 1-percent tax, it’s not you’re giving us money, because it’s [our] residents deciding to pay more,” Lumumba said. “When you talk about the federal funding that uses the state as a conduit, you didn’t give us anything. The federal government did.”

Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin, who was appointed to oversee the city’s water system under a November 2022 court order, called 2889 a “grab for money,” saying the state only wanted to take over Jackson’s water system after roughly $800 million in federal funds was allocated to fix it.

“They’re clearly trying to get access and control,” he said. “I do think it’s a pure grab for money.”

Ted Henifin
Ted Henifin(WLBT)

Jackson received $795 million in federal funds to help address water and sewer needs, including $600 million in an omnibus spending bill passed by Congress late last year.

Lumumba only recalled one other city receiving direct federal aid for water, and that was Flint, Michigan. However, he said that allocation was far less than what has been awarded to Jackson.

“What else is noteworthy is, that what else has never taken place, is that the EPA has never hopscotched the state in order to provide technical support and maintain control over the system,” he said. “And, so, while there’s been a lot of statements about the supposed incompetence on the city level, there is a reason the feds hopscotched the state. There is a reason that the feds said, ‘we’ll take it over, not you.’”

“And I think that should be noted, as we talk about not only the legislation that has taken place. But it should be noted, in terms of the fact there’s a Title VI complaint against the state at this time.”

The mayor says he plans to reach out to Parker to discuss the bill further.

[Read: EPA launches civil rights investigation into state funding of Jackson water projects]

Provisions of the bill mandate that the authority would have the ability to “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” as long as the authority follows the terms and conditions associated with those gifts.

However, he is planning to introduce an amendment to the measure that would ensure the funds could only be used in areas impacted by the September 6 federal disaster declaration.

“The board will be in place, the president will be in place, but they will have absolutely no authority over any of the money until the receiver leaves,” he said. “And then, at that point, they will be required to make sure that the money is used within the district, as the receiver has seen fit.”

Sen. David Parker discusses his bill that would place ownership of Jackson's water system under...
Sen. David Parker discusses his bill that would place ownership of Jackson's water system under a separate authority.(WLBT)

The bill gives the utility district the ability to set and raise water/sewer rates, issue debt, and make improvements as it sees fit. Additionally, the board would be required to appoint a president to oversee the utility’s day-to-day operations.

Parker said the state started working on the bill last year and was prompted by previous water crises. “This legislation has been worked on throughout [the previous] year,” he said. “There were rumors, as you recall, earlier in the year, of a special session.”

On August 29, five members of the Jackson delegation sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves urging him to call a special session to address Jackson’s ongoing water woes. That letter was sent the same day the state temporarily took over the water system after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of people without water.

A town hall meeting is slated for 6 p.m., on Wednesday, February 1, to give residents an opportunity to talk about the latest developments with the water system. It will be held at Forest Hill High School at 2607 Raymond Rd.

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