‘My kids are never gonna believe it’: Jackson water customers receive millions of dollars in debt relief

Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 3:11 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Despite wearing a face mask, it was easy to see the smile on Annie Travis’ face as she walked out of Jackson’s water billing office Thursday morning.

She just found out a federal grant was going to pay off more than $2,300 in outstanding water debt, reducing the amount she owed to around $900.

“My kids are never gonna believe it. I can’t wait to go and share this with them,” she said. “Thank you all so much. God bless you.”

Travis was one of more than 2,100 people who had signed up as of Thursday afternoon to receive debt relief through the People’s Relief Campaign.

The program was launched on March 2, and is offering $20 million in debt relief to Jackson water customers on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Several satellite locations were open across the city to meet the expected demand.

People’s Relief Campaign locationsHours
Northtown Pharmacy5:30 to 7 p.m.
Tougaloo College1 to 8 p.m.
IAJE (Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity)5:30 to 7 p.m.
St. John Missionary Baptist Church6 to 8 p.m.
Margaret Walker Alexander Library9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jackson Municipal Art Gallery10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sykes Community Center6 to 8 p.m.
Medgar Evers Library9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The program, which was organized by JXN Water, is funded with a federal grant from the Low-Income Water Assistance Program. That grant, in turn, is designed to assist low-income households with their water and wastewater bills.

Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, chief experience officer for JXN Water, said the program is not debt forgiveness, but debt relief.

“We’re relieving the customer and the customer is still paying their bill,” he said. “This is not money we hand to them. This is money we put right on the bill. That’s the only way it can happen.”

Once the funds are allocated, they go into Jackson’s water/sewer enterprise fund.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said customers began lining up at the city’s water department around 6 a.m.

“We told you that we were going to find the money in order to fix our water system. We have done that. Now, we have to do the work of fixing it,” he said. “We told you that we were going to find a way to provide relief and equity to residents. And now you see that happening.”

As of 2 p.m., nearly $5 million in grant money had been awarded, wiping out debt for thousands of customers.

“This is really about helping people get rid of the legacy of debt when bills have been incorrect or not right,” said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, co-founder of Promise Pay, a software company brought in to help with the effort. “The nicest compliment you can get is the fact that people are walking in with really heavy debt and stress and walking out happy with tears of joy.”

JXN Water reached out to Promise Pay months ago to help with the campaign. The California-based company was familiar with Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin, having worked with him when he was with another utility.

Henifin, a 40-year public works veteran, was appointed to take over Jackson’s water system last year as part of a federal court order.

“We were moved because we saw people in government, it was really had to get aid... you had to bring your taxes, you had to come into the office, you had to take a day off work, you had to wait in line,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “So, we created a company so that we can make those systems much easier... We try to make it as easy as possible.”

Customers were in and out of the Metrocenter location in a matter of minutes. In many cases, receiving thousands of dollars in debt relief.

“The largest amount I’ve seen so far has been $12,000,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “We’ve seen pretty large amounts, people with very large bills.”

People across the city have been struggling with incorrect statements for years. The problems began when the city brought on Siemens Industry USA to completely overhaul the city’s billing system.

The system never worked. Many customers received bills that were thousands of dollars too high, while others received no bills at all.

For the latter group, when those customers finally received statements, their bills, too, were in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

“It was devastating when I got mine,” said Deborah Sutton. “I said I knew I wasn’t using this much water here.”

Sutton eventually set up a payment plan and has since whittled her debt down from $6,000 to $2,000.

She, too, was at the Metrocenter Thursday seeking help. “It’s relief on me and everybody else, too,” she said.

Customers are eligible for relief on water and sewer debt acquired prior to December 1, 2022.

“We’re asking residents to really, really signup ASAP,” said Rukia Lumumba, with the Jackson People’s Assembly. “It’s my understanding that the money will go on until the money’s out.”

To qualify, residents must:

  • Have water and/or wastewater services in Jackson
  • Have a past-due balance from before December 1, 2022
  • Have an inaccurate bill or have not received a bill

She and Abdul-Tawwab say the program is a necessary step in restoring trust in the city’s billing system.

“The reality is that we need to make sure every single meter is working correctly,” he said. “And that’s the field work. That’s hiring more people. That’s getting them out there. That’s what we’re doing now.”

For more information, call (601) 374-5787 or log onto peoplesreliefcampaign.com.

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