JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The interim manager appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the troubled water system in Mississippi's capital city released a new financial plan Friday to change the way Jackson bills for water and spend hundreds of millions of federal relief funds paying down the system's debt.
The plan would relieve the water system of its debt and introduce a new billing model that would become effective in the budget year that begins on Oct. 1. The proposed reforms would allow Jackson to pay for the costs of improving and operating a water system that is in such disrepair it could fail again at any moment, according to Ted Henifin, the interim water manager.
“I’ve got to tell you, I could walk out of here right now and lose the system. It’s that tenuous,” Henifin said at a Friday news conference. “We’ve done a lot to improve this system, but it might fail tomorrow."
Henifin said that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called him in a panic earlier Friday because he had lost water in his home. The mayor was worried the system had failed again. Repeated breakdowns have caused many in the city of about 150,000 to go days and weeks at a time without safe running water.
The plan would change the way Jackson issues fees for water use. Water fees would be capped at $150 per month for homes with a value of $160,000 or more. Bills for commercial and other properties would be capped at $600 a month. This is part of Henifin's proposed solution to a loss of revenue Jackson has experienced as its tax base eroded over the past few decades.
Increasing maintenance costs in a city where 25% of residents are in poverty could lead to increases in water rates, further accelerating migration out of Jackson to the suburbs. This represents a “slow death spiral” that many cities in the United States have faced over the past four decades, according to Henifin’s proposal.
The new rate structure would reduce the system’s dependence on city water meters, which have been mired in problems, Henifin said. In the past, some residents have been billed too little or too much, and some have not received bills for long periods of time.
But legislation passed by Mississippi state senators Thursday would ban Henifin's proposed solution. The bill, which is being pushed by Republican legislators from outside Jackson, would require that utilities charge residents based on the amount of water they use. Metering systems are used to calculate how much water people use.
On Friday, Henifin said the city’s past challenges with water meters would make it difficult to rebuild confidence in a metering system.
The metering bill isn't the only legislation advancing in the state legislature that would impact Jackson's water system. Another bill proposes an eventual transfer of water, wastewater and storm water services provided by Jackson, a Democratic-led city, to a new regional entity’s “ownership, management and control.”
Henifin told The Associated Press that he believes the bill could be motivated by a desire by state officials to access the large pot of federal dollars earmarked for Jackson's water.
Henifin’s plan would also reserve around $290 million from a loan fund included in an $800 million trove of federal dollars to pay off the water system’s existing debt. The move would improve the water utility’s credit rating so it could borrow more money in the future for further improvements, Henifin said.
Paying off debt using federal dollars would ensure that one-time funding is used for one-time expenses. “That’s business 101,” Henifin said.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.