House approves bill mandating Jackson’s one-percent funds go toward water, sewer

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, explains the elements of a...
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, explains the elements of a bill in House Chamber, Monday, March 28, 2022, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 2:01 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A bill that would mandate Jackson use its one-percent sales dollars strictly on water and sewer infrastructure has cleared the House.

On Thursday, Representatives approved H.B. 1168, which would require that all money generated by Jackson’s one-percent infrastructure sales tax go to water and sewer and related infrastructure.

The tax was approved by a ballot referendum years ago and is in addition to the regular state sales tax placed on all commercial transactions.

The bill also would require that the Department of Revenue withhold funds from the city if it failed to follow annual reporting requirements related to tax.

The measure was passed on a 76-41 vote following more than an hour of heated debate. A motion to reconsider has been entered.

Many members of the Jackson delegation questioned the timing of the bill, asking why it is necessary now that nearly $800 million in federal funds had been allocated to the city for water repairs.

Rep. Trey Lamar, the bill’s author, said the funds haven’t “hit the bank” and the city’s third-party water administrator is looking for funds to address water needs now.

Ted Henifin was appointed interim third-party administrator over Jackson water as part of a November 2022 court order.

“He wants a new revenue stream to come in to help with these meters all over Jackson that are not metering the water and not allowing him to collect the fees,” he said. “He’s been quoted as saying that would cost somewhere around $10 million to really help the system.”

Henifin was referring to the $10 million the city pays each year to maintain its current meter system.

Lamar, who represents Lafayette and Tate counties, said he had not spoken with Henifin regarding the bill, but said his office was always open if he wanted to meet.

He also had not spoken to any members of the one-percent commission, the 10-member panel that oversees how Jackson currently uses the one-percent tax.

Rep. Zakiya Summers, who represents Hinds and Rankin counties, offered an amendment to require the funds be diverted to water only until the federal money is made available. However, that proposal died on a 45-75 vote.

She argued that requiring the money to go solely toward water would cut out a revenue stream for repairing streets, which typically have to be dug up to make water line repairs.

“Are you not aware that after you tear up a street to fix water pipes, you got to lay concrete?” she asked.

Summers also criticized state leadership for failing to help Jackson with water needs in the past, even after the February 2021 water crisis, when customers in the city were left without water for weeks.

“Legislators from the city of Jackson have been coming to this body for a number of years and asking for support to help the water and sewer system... but those requests have not been honored. Now, all of a sudden, we’re going to be getting hundreds of millions of dollars, [and the] gentleman from outside of Jackson wants to tell Jackson how to spend the money,” she said.

Lamar said Jackson had received $160 million in additional revenue since 2014, “due to the actions of this body.” However, he did not specify what revenues he was referring to.

Rep. De’Keither Stamps, who was a member of the Jackson City Council at the time the one-percent tax was voted in, says voters approved the tax with the understanding it would be used on roads and bridges.

“My understanding is that... water and sewer was part of what it could be spent on. And again, this bill just prioritizes water and sewer,” Lamar said.

“It also delineated streets and other infrastructure projects. It also said it would be done on traffic patterns, need, and usage as well,” Stamps retorted.

DeKeither Stamps, Democratic candidate for Public Service Commissioner, Central District,...
DeKeither Stamps, Democratic candidate for Public Service Commissioner, Central District, addresses the early morning crowd at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Candidates running in party primaries for statewide offices and district posts take advantage of the large gathered crowd at the fair who attend for the speeches. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)

Voters in the capital city overwhelmingly approved implementing a special one-percent sales tax in 2014 specifically to go to infrastructure work, such as roads, water, and drainage. A 10-member commission was appointed to draw up a master plan and ensure spending was done in accordance with it.

The commission voted early on to not spend money on water and sewer, because water and sewer have their own dedicated revenue source, which comes from user fees.

Since 2015, the tax has generated more than $117 million.

Commissioner Pete Perry has been on the oversight panel since its inception. He supports the bill’s reporting requirements, but also questions why the money needs to be diverted to water. “City has hundreds of millions now for water. The $13 million to $14 million from the one-percent tax would be like spitting in the ocean,” he said in a text. “Or, in this case, the reservoir.”

Jackson has about $2 billion in water and sewer needs. Jackson needs about $960 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.

Perry says he plans to reach out to Lamar to discuss the bill further. “[It] might have been an arguable idea this time last year, but now I think the reverse is best - no one-percent on water,” he added. “They can’t spend the $600 million in a few years [and there’s] not enough contractors or workers available. [It] would mean the one percent would effectively be just sitting in a bank account.”

Henifin’s comments at a December town hall back up that point. At that meeting, the third-party manager told the crowd he wanted to replace more than 100 miles of water pipeline over the next five years. He said that no more than 20 could be replaced each year, based on the capacity of the metro area’s contracting community, as well as the patients of residents.

Other lawmakers talked about the current conditions of city streets, saying that people have to spend thousands of dollars on wheels, rims, and tires as a result of massive potholes.

“This is another one of those paternalistic ideas that ‘we’re going to tell you what to do because we want to punish you while we’re doing it,” said Rep. Robert Johnson. “I’m not saying it shouldn’t be spent on water. But I’m not the one to make that decision, you’re not the one to make that decision.”

“But there’s somebody who deals with [this] every day, who answers to the citizens of Jackson - actually they don’t, because they’re appointed, not elected - but they have businesses here. They have a vested interest here,” Johnson said, referring to the one-percent commission.

Rep. Alyce Clarke asked the Christian members of the House to raise their hands and told them to “do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you.”

“You wouldn’t want us voting for your area what you’re trying to vote for my area,” she said. “We have some problems. We know we have some problems, but we need some help, and we need you to help us, and you can do it.”

Lamar said if members wanted to talk about faith, they should think about the folks most impacted by Jackson’s many water crises.

“Put yourself in the situation several months ago, back in 2022, when the city of Jackson was in a major water crisis. Imagine the old lady living in South Jackson that’s out of water for weeks. Imagine the students who were displaced with no water and lost weeks of their education,” he said. “Let’s focus on those folks if we’re going to talk about our faith. Let’s focus on those people.”

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