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DOJ order details third-party role over Jackson water, feds file new complaint

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DOJ order details third-party role over Jackson water, feds file new complaint

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it filed the interim proposal for overseeing Jackson's water system, which the council approved on Nov. 17, making the agreement available to the public.

The parties await a federal court's approval before the agreement, which is set to last a year, takes effect. The DOJ also filed a new complaint against the city for its inability to comply with previous enforcement from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The order names Ted Henifin as Jackson's interim third-party . Henifin, a senior fellow at the nonprofit U.S. Water Alliance, managed the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia Beach from 2006 until 2022, overseeing the city's sewer system.

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The goal of the interim agreement, according to the order, is to stabilize Jackson's water system while the city and federal government look at long-term solutions, through litigation or a consent decree.

Henifin's job, as the order lays out, will be to "operate, maintain, and control" the water system in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as to make capital improvements, specific projects prioritized in the order. The order also gives the third-party team authority over Jackson city employees and contractors to carry out those projects.

The order gives the third-party leadership broader spending authority than what the city would normally have. For instance, under the order, the management team won't have to comply with laws regulating how a governing body procures contracts. The order writes instead that the third-party team "will use best efforts to have the procurement process be competitive, transparent, and efficient." The order requires that the manager consult with the city attorney over any contracts longer than a year.

The document also gives Henifin and his team power to make rate changes for Jackson water customers.

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Within 60 days, Henifin will have to make a funding strategy, which will include a short-, medium- and long-term — over 5 years — spending plan and schedule for the water system. In that plan, Henifin can propose rate changes as well as governing alternatives.

If the plan does include a rate change for customers, the order requires the mayor to put the change before the city council. But even if the city council doesn't approve the rate change, the order gives the third-party manager the authority to change the rates anyway, as long as it's been more than a year since the last rate adjustment. City last raised rates in December 2021.

Under the order, the third-party manager does not have the authority to consolidate, or regionalize, Jackson's water system, or allow another governing body to operate the system.

The agreement also stipulates that documents in the third-party manager's possession are not subject to public records laws because it is not a federal, state or local agency. The order does require the manager to make a website to inform the public with status reports, requests for proposals, and quarterly updates.

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The federal court, after approving this order, would have authority over how Henifin's team is complying with the agreement to manage Jackson's water system.

The order lists 13 projects as priorities for the management team to facilitate:

  1. Operations and management contract
  2. Winterization of both treatment plants
  3. Corrosion control
  4. Implement an alternative water source plan
  5. Distribution system study, analysis and implementation, including replacing water lines, prioritizing any lead lines found
  6. System stabilization plan, including a sustainable revenue model
  7. SCADA system improvements, including sensors, actuators
  8. Assess and repair chemical at plants and wells
  9. Chlorine system improvements at O.B. Curtis
  10. Intake structure repairs
  11. Restore redundancy at treatment facilities, including pumps
  12. Sludge assessment and removal at water storage facilities
  13. Assess power vulnerability

The agreement gives Henifin's team a $2.98 million budget for a 12-month period. That total includes $400,000 for Henifin's salary, travel and living expenses; $1.1 million for staff pay and expenses; $1.4 million for contractor and consultant ; and $66,000 for other expenses, such as phones, computers, and insurance.

The order states that the budget won't be funded by customers' water bills. The city will pay for the budget with money from the EPA and other .

Gov. Tate Reeves applauded the news, saying in a statement that it's "excellent news" that "Mayor (Chokwe Antar Lumumba) will no longer be overseeing the city's water system."

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Reeves also announced that he authorized to commit $240,000 from the state's Disaster Mitigation Fund "as a bridge" to help during the transition of control over the water system.

Read the full order here.

New complaint

The DOJ also filed a new complaint against Jackson on Tuesday requesting a court-ordered injunction to require the city to comply with federal drinking water laws.

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The complaint notes the city's inability to comply with previous enforcement actions issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, including an Administrative Order issued in July, 2021.

The filing details various violations of that order:

  • Staffing shortages: in just four months of operation this year, J.H. Fewell didn't have a certified Class A operator in at least 15 instances, according to the complaint.
  • Not implementing an alternative water source plan during boil water notices.
  • Turbidity in the water.
  • Not beginning the process to rehabilitate filters at J.H. Fewell on time.
  • Not implementing the city's corrosion control plan at J.H. Fewell.

The complaint also notes that, because of the system's defficiencies, contaminants are either present or likely to enter the system.

"State and local actions have been insufficient to prevent the threat of additional failures," the complaint says. "Such failures are likely to continue to occur, whether under normal working conditions or in extreme weather events."

Read the full complaint here.

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Some state politicians may be moving beyond name-calling in health care

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Riding around curvy roads in northeast Mississippi campaigning for reelection in 2007, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour unveiled to a reporter his plan to create a exchange where individuals and businesses could shop for health insurance at a lower rate.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 had a feature strikingly similar to what Barbour proposed, which coincidentally already was being used in . The ACA gave states the option to piggyback off the federal exchange to create their own exchange. The federal subsidies offered through the ACA would be available to individuals insurance off the federal or a state exchange.

Barbour wanted to create a state exchange that would include features from the proposal he offered during his 2007 reelection campaign. State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney also strongly supported a state exchange, saying his office would have more authority to shape a state exchange to fit the needs of Mississippians. But the ACA had by then morphed into “Obamacare,” which was meant to be a derisive term, and many Mississippi legislators, and then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, were opposed to being associated with any part of the landmark national health care touted and proposed by then-President Barack Obama.

In the end, there was no state exchange set up in Mississippi, though it could be argued that the national exchange has been a in the state. About 270,000 Mississippians currently have insurance policies purchased off the national exchange.

Yet for 13 years now, most Mississippi politicians have continually demonized “Obamacare” and anything associated with the national law.

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They blocked Medicaid expansion that would health care for primarily the working poor in Mississippi, and they rejected a state-run exchange. And along the way, Medicaid expansion and Obamacare became dirty words in the minds of many Mississippi politicians.

That demonization might be ending. On the same day in the Mississippi House last , members by an overwhelming 98-20 margin voted to expand Medicaid. Soon after that vote, House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, offered a bill, which passed 112-5, to create a statewide exchange.

Under the bill, Mississippians will go to the state exchange to purchase their insurance policy, but importantly, the federal subsidies still will be available. Lamar is hoping by offering state tax incentives to private insurance companies to join the exchange that there will be more choices for Mississippians shopping for health care coverage. And he is hoping that by providing tax incentives to health care providers who accept patients who have exchange insurance coverage, that more of them will do so.

Hello, Haley Barbour and Mike Chaney from 2012.

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During the debate of the two bills in the House, no one uttered the word Obamacare. And in general, fewer and fewer Mississippi politicians are saying Obamacare in a derisive manner, though many go out of the way not to say the phrase Medicaid expansion when they are talking about — gulp — expanding Medicaid.

One politician, of course, continues to proudly and derisively use the term Obamacare. When arguing against expanding Medicaid, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves recently reposted a social media comment from former proclaiming: “Obamacare sucks!!!”

When explaining the bill to expand Medicaid to fellow House members, Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, did not about Obamacare. Instead, she talked about the fact that Mississippi has many of the nation's worst health care outcomes.

Mississippi has among the highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes deaths, cardio disease death — and the list goes on.

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The bottom line is Mississippians have the shortest life expectancy in the nation.

In terms of action by legislators to address those bad outcomes, she said, “‘No' is not a policy that has helped.”

Before this session is over, Reeves may have to decide whether he wants to continue the demonization of Obamacare or sign into law Medicaid expansion in an effort to address those poor health care outcomes. There is a strong possibility the bill also will pass the Senate and reach his desk, where he must decide whether to sign it or veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

If so, Reeves will not be the first Mississippi governor to face some difficult decisions surrounding Medicaid.

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In 1969, then-Gov. John Bell Williams, who had voted against creating the original Medicaid program when he was in the U.S. House in 1964 and who had railed against it, called a special session to ask legislators to opt into the Medicaid program. Williams said the fact he opposed the program should not keep lawmakers from embracing a federal program that would Mississippians.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Bill to shutter most of Parchman passes first committee hurdle

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After facing initial pushback, a proposal to close most of the at Parchman passed its first hurdle in the Senate Corrections Committee Friday morning.

Senate Bill 2353 by Committee chair Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, proposes shutting down most operations at the 's oldest and most infamous prison by sending people, staff and programs to other facilities.

The vote days after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report slamming unconstitutional conditions at three Mississippi prisons. Parchman was not the focus of the , but Barnett said two years after the DOJ's initial report about Parchman, conditions there have not improved much.

“I know this bill is not the fix-all but we have to start somewhere,” he said. “… Even yesterday was too late and tomorrow will definitely be too late.”

A key point of the phase down plan is for the state to gain operation of the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, which is located less than 10 miles away in Tutwiler and run by CoreCivic.

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Earlier this , committee members asked for more information about how much it would cost for the state to gain operation of the Tutwiler prison and how that compares to the cost to repair Parchman.

On Friday, Barnett said there is not a contract or memorandum of understanding between the Department of Corrections and CoreCivic in writing yet, but the prison prison company gave an estimate of $14 million a year to lease Tallahatchie Correctional, the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the facility.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, said problems with violence and gang control are present beyond Parchman and failure to address staffing won't get the prisons under control.

“Moving the inmates seven miles up the road is not going to solve our problem,” she said before the committee approved the bill.

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Barnett agreed, but added that the reason why the prisons are that way is because money hasn't been invested to make sure they are secure.

He noted that during the riots at the end of 2019 and early 2020, about 1,000 inmates were transferred from Parchman to Tallahatchie Correctional, and there were no problems.

A committee substitute version of SB 2353 passed, including a name change for Parchman. In the meeting, Barnett said he consulted with members of the Delta delegation about renaming the prison because of its current and historical negative association.

As of Friday morning, a copy of the committee substitute was not available online.

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The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is to meet Tuesday. Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After on prison conditions in 2019 by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, the U.S. Department of Justice, at the urging of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others, began an investigation into four Mississippi prisons, starting with Parchman. It concluded in April 2022 that those imprisoned at Parchman were being subjected to violence, inadequate medical care and lack of suicide prevention.

In a 60-page report released this week, the Justice Department found the state is also violating the constitutional rights of those held in the other three prisons: the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, the Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Trump endorses Roger Wicker for Senate reelection 

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Former Republican endorsed U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker's bid for reelection on Thursday, likely giving the incumbent senator a major boost weeks before Mississippi's party primaries. 

“Senator Roger Wicker is a fantastic Senator for the Great State of Mississippi,” Trump wrote on social media. “As the Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger is working hard to Strengthen our Military, Defend our Country, and our .”

Wicker, a 72-year-old , has represented the Magnolia State in the U.S. Senate since 2007. Before the Senate, he served several terms in the U.S. House and in the Mississippi Legislature.

He is currently the top Republican serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters involving the U.S. military. If the GOP gains a majority in the Senate this year, Wicker could be the first Mississippian to that committee since former U.S. Sen. John .

“We are proud to have 's support for our campaign and re-election efforts,” Wicker campaign manager Jake Monssen said in a statement. “ across Mississippi are to take back the Senate and the White House in 2024 and put an end to the radical Biden-Harris agenda.”

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Wicker will compete against state Rep. Dan Eubanks of DeSoto County and retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Ghannon Burton in the Republican primary on March 12. Civil rights attorney Ty Pinkins is the only candidate who qualified in the Democratic primary. 

The winner of the Republican primary will compete against Pinkins on November 5.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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