Jackson debt relief program continues; water manager contradicts previous statements on federal grant

Jackson ITPM Ted Henifin says the city never received $20 million debt forgiveness grant.
Jackson ITPM Ted Henifin says the city never received $20 million debt forgiveness grant.(WLBT)
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 7:13 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A day after WLBT reported the city did not receive a much-touted federal grant to help pay for it, a major water debt relief program continues.

Meanwhile, the city’s third-party water manager says the grant that didn’t come through for that program was never meant for the program in the first place.

“I want to clarify the funding for the program, as it can be a little confusing,” Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin wrote. “It is important to understand that there are two separate programs for water bill relief.”

As for those programs, Henifin said they include the People’s Relief Campaign and a separate LIHWAP-funded program.

The People’s Relief Campaign launched on March 2. It was established to help low-income residents pay off water and sewer debt accumulated prior to December 1, 2022.

As of Tuesday, approximately $13 million past debt had been forgiven.

“The... campaign continues to exist and proceed with its goal of providing debt relief to the residents and businesses of Jackson for disputed past due water bills,” he said.

Henifin said customers who have already received debt relief through the People’s Relief Campaign do not need to pay those funds back, and those who continue to meet eligibility requirements should still apply for assistance.

Henifin, meanwhile, attempted to offer additional clarification on how the campaign is funded.

Initially city leaders and officials with JXN Water said the program would be paid for with a $20 million grant through the federal Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program.

However, in a press release on Wednesday, Henifin backtracked on those statements, saying the People’s Relief Campaign is “separate from LIHWAP.”

As for the LIHWAP funds themselves, “we have been working closely with the state and federal governments to bring this program to the city of Jackson,” he said.

The release contradicts previous statements made by JXN Water and city leaders, including those made by Henifin a day prior to his March 15 news release.

On March 2, for instance, Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, chief experience officer with JXN Water, told WLBT the People’s Relief Campaign was being funded with a “Low-Income Housing Water Assistance,” grant.

“That’s where the money is coming from for the debt relief,” he said.

And in an interview on March 14, Henifin said the program was to be funded through LIHWAP.

However, he told WLBT that funding never came through because of a miscommunication with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and that the debt forgiven through the program was simply being written off by JXN Water.

JXN Water is the corporation Henifin formed to manage the city’s water system and water billing system. Henifin was named interim third-party manager as part of a federal court order signed last November placing Jackson’s water system in receivership.

Henifin says that miscommunication came during a February 22 meeting, where HHS officials told him millions of dollars in LIHWAP funds would be made available for debt relief efforts in Jackson if the state of Mississippi spent a certain portion of its LIHWAP by the end of that month.

However, the third-party manager was informed in a March 6 email that the state’s threshold was much higher than initially thought and that the deadline to reach the threshold had passed.

“I sincerely apologize for misspeaking and providing incorrect information,” an official with DHHS’s LIHWAP Office of Community Services wrote. “I realize that this will impact the state’s ability to receive supplemental funding.”

In his response, he said the People’s Relief Campaign had already gotten underway and that the news was “very disappointing.”

“We have Promise geared up and a huge demand here in Jackson,” he wrote.

An email from a DHHS official says she "misspoke" in saying more LIHWAP funding would be...
An email from a DHHS official says she "misspoke" in saying more LIHWAP funding would be available for Jackson.(WLBT)
Henifin responds to DHHS claims they misspoke in telling him additional LIHWAP funds would be...
Henifin responds to DHHS claims they misspoke in telling him additional LIHWAP funds would be available.(WLBT)

Promise is Promise Pay, the company brought on by JXN Water to help administer funds as part of People’s Relief.

“We help government move money out to people who need it most,” CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins told WLBT.

The mayor’s comments from a March 6 press conference also point to LIHWAP dollars going to the campaign.

“I will explain to you where the money comes from. These are federal dollars, and they are part of the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said. “It is a pilot program that is utilized in 41 states and 56 tribes. And, so, we identified this as a means to help our residents out in Jackson.”

Lumumba was responding to comments made by Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes, one of the few leaders who questioned the program early on.

A copy of Henifin’s full statement is shown below.

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