American Rescue Plan Act

Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism


Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

More than a century before failing infrastructure left Jackson, Mississippi, without running water this summer, thousands of the capital city’s residents gathered in a park downtown to celebrate the new water filtration plant that promised to turn the muddy liquid flowing into people’s taps into “clean, pure water.”

People poured in from nearby schools and factories to witness history that morning in November 1914, according to the account in the Jackson Daily

Train whistles blew, cheerleaders carried large banners, and city leaders spoke from a stage decorated with flags, pennants and bunting.

“Our historic capital city has many causes for congratulation,” said Edgar S. Wilson, a prominent and politically connected businessman who presided over the event, “but clear water is her crowning glory, her greatest asset; a blessing that will pass from generation to generation.”

Today, Jackson’s water system is a symbol of national embarrassment, highlighted by this August’s crisis that deprived more than 170,000 people of water to drink, wash or flush toilets.

It was the latest in a series of water-related problems plaguing the state’s biggest city. They include frequent line breaks, shut-offs, boil-water notices and an ongoing exposure to toxic lead and harmful bacteria. Jackson consistently has been in violation of safe drinking water standards since at least 2018 and has been under a federal order since 2020 to fix a host of issues impacting its water system. A 2013 consent decree Jackson entered with state and federal agencies requiring it to fix its beleaguered wastewater system also remains in effect.

Even now, the system continues to teeter on the brink of failure. It strained to meet the demand of an additional 55,000 people who attended Jackson State University’s homecoming game against Campbell University on Oct. 22. An even larger crowd is expected Saturday for JSU’s game against Southern University with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town. Residents were warned on Monday that this could again push the water system to the limit and were urged to ration water usage.

State officials have blamed leaders of the predominantly Black city for fiscal mismanagement and neglect. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in a recent statement called the situation “a crisis of incompetence” and pointed a finger directly at Jackson’s mayor.

City leaders, meanwhile, accuse state officials of the predominantly white legislative and executive branches of ignoring their cries for help. Democratic Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba during an interview earlier this year with Mississippi Today called state lawmakers’ attitudes toward Jackson “paternalistic” and “racist.” During a press conference in September, he told residents not to trust the state.

But a USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that the foundation for these current failures was laid decades ago and problems compounded as the city evolved. Since then, city leaders and state officials alike have abandoned civility in lieu of finger pointing and steered the system into a collision course with disaster. 

Reporters combed through more than a century of newspaper archives, decades of the city’s annual financial statements, water quality reports and studies of the municipal system over the years, as well as recent lawsuits and orders against the city for violating drinking water standards. They also interviewed more than a dozen residents, city and state officials and former workers of the water system who shared firsthand knowledge of the problems. 

The reporting found a complex story of population decline, poverty, racism, politics, mismanagement and . But key details emerged that, when pieced together, paint a portrait of a water system that was flawed from the start and worsened exponentially over the years as those in power seemingly lost control. 

The system was cobbled together over the course of several administrations into a needlessly complicated operation with several moving parts. Complaints about bad water were rampant early on, and the system, unlike most Mississippi communities, relies mostly on surface water instead of cleaner, simpler wells. 

Jackson now has some 1,000 miles of water mains and two treatment plants: the original one, named J.H. Fewell, that can draw up to 25 million gallons a day from the Pearl River; and another one that opened in 1993, named O.B. Curtis, that can draw twice as much from the manmade Ross Barnett Reservoir located northeast of the city. The O.B. Curtis plant uses two different types of filtration systems to treat the water – conventional and membrane, making it tricky to manage.

Further complicating things, Jackson also operates a small system of wells that rely on groundwater and serve about 16,000 customers in the southern part of the city and nearby Byram.

“Until someone disputes this, and no one has been able to, you have probably the most complex water treatment facility in the country,” Lumumba said at a community meeting last month.

The original plant and piping that was laid more than a century ago started reaching the end of their lifespans just as Jackson’s population began to decline and its wealthier white residents fled for the suburbs. By the time Jackson elected its first Black mayor in 1997, the system was already in desperate need of repair but lacked the customer base to afford the then-$300 million worth of improvements. 

The price tag for those and other improvements has ballooned over the years to an estimated $1 billion as one administration after the next postponed infrastructure projects amid a dwindling revenue stream. Although the city collected some $900 million from customers over the past two decades, it lost nearly a half billion dollars in unbilled and unpaid usage during the same time from rampant theft and a botched metering and billing system. 

Meanwhile, the city failed to keep its plants fully staffed and functionally operating, leading to a deterioration of water conditions. Jackson has racked up multiple state and federal drinking water violations in the past five years and, in 2020, got hit with an emergency order by the Environmental Protection Agency. It must now commit to costly improvements to remedy the problems but lacks the funds to do it. 

As Jackson struggles, state leaders have done little to help. Every year since at least 2018, Jackson has sought financial assistance from the Legislature to improve its water system. And every year, those bills have died in committee.

“We’re at a reckoning point,” said Leigh Terry, assistant professor of environmental engineering at The University of Alabama. “We’re going to see more of these cases come up if we don’t invest and do the maintenance needed to replace these pipes, and pump systems and everything that often gets neglected.”

Jackson’s water woes are extreme but not rare. They’re endemic of a problem plaguing cities from coast to coast, as failures from aging infrastructure outpace funding for improvements.

But Jackson’s residents are particularly hard hit. Nearly 84% of them are minorities, and one in four 1 in 4 lives in poverty. Many struggle to pay their bills, much less buy bottled water every time the system strains. 

“I can’t even count how many times we’ve been on boil-water notice with the main gaskets breaking and the pipes breaking in the wintertime,” said Evelyn Fletcher, a federal building inspector who moved to Jackson 13 years ago. “I feel that God allowed this situation to be exposed across America, and even other countries, so we could get the assistance that we really need. I feel like it was God’s timing because we’ve been going through it for a while.”

A fire that led to water

The state of Mississippi took its name from the mighty waterway slicing through the country, but it was the lesser-known Pearl River that gave rise to the state’s capital. 

Jackson was established as the seat of government in 1821 in part because of its proximity to the Pearl, which cuts down the center of the state. But it wasn’t until a fire threatened to consume the city’s business district six decades later that the river became its life force.

The 1884 blaze had left firefighters scrambling for water, so local leaders devised a plan to pump the Pearl. This would ensure a steady supply of water for drinking, bathing and fire protection. In April 1889, the “Water Works Co.” began operations, delivering “pure, healthful river water” through a network of underground pipes, according to newspaper archives.

But it was not without its problems. The untreated river water was subject to contamination from bacteria and pollutants. Sometimes it arrived in people’s homes full of mud.

Residents soon looked to artesian wells as a solution and, in 1910, voted to create a new system from these free-flowing underground springs. “We want artesian water,” a Jackson Daily News headline demanded that year. But, by 1912, the company hired to drill the wells could produce just 2.5 million gallons of water a day – not enough for the city’s 4 million gallon per day requirement. 

Jackson’s groundwater is limited because the city sits on top of an inactive volcano, which stunted the formation of the area’s underground aquifers as they developed over the eons. Because they formed on top of the existing volcano, they’re shallower and thinner than usual, said Bill Oakley, a geologist who worked for decades for the U.S. Geological Survey and still consults on well projects throughout Mississippi.

To reach the desired capacity would be costly, engineers said in 1912. It would mean drilling additional wells and maintaining gasoline engines or electric motors for pumping. This forced the city to consider two other options: either drawing ground water from shallow wells in nearby Rankin County or building a filtration plant to purify water from the Pearl River. 

The matter was decided in one afternoon in April 1913 when then-Mayor Swepson James Taylor and an ad-hoc commission of prominent citizens determined that “filtration of the Pearl river supply is Jackson’s only solution to the water problem,” according to an account from the Jackson Daily News.

Limited groundwater supplies forced their hand, Oakley said. But in choosing filtered river water, Jackson diverged from the path most Mississippi communities would take.

All but 15 of the more than 1,000 community water systems in Mississippi pull from ground sources, according to EPA records. Of those that use surface water, most purchase it from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which draws water from the Tombigbee River.

Although it has its problems, groundwater from wells and aquifers is generally cleaner and easier to treat. It usually contains less bacteria and is of a higher and more consistent quality. By contrast, surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs can vary dramatically depending on where and when it’s collected, and it generally has more contaminants, sediments and debris to be filtered out. 

Memphis, Tennessee, which initially relied on the Wolf River as its primary source of drinking water, faced a similar dilemma as Jackson in the late 1800s, especially after a deadly outbreak of Yellow Fever that swept the region was linked to unsanitary water. But unlike Jackson, Memphis could tap into an abundant aquifer and continues to tout its clean water to this day. 

Memphis’ municipal water system has had no violations or enforcement actions in at least five years, EPA records show. Jackson, meanwhile, has 176 violation points and more than 70 enforcement actions during the same time period. 

As state and federal regulations over drinking water have stiffened over the decades, it has become more challenging to staff Jackson’s water system. It takes up to six years of training and a Class A certification to operate a surface water treatment plant, which requires someone onsite 24 hours a day. 

Jackson consistently has struggled to hire and retain enough operators to its system. This stems from a combination of low wages, high training requirements and a dearth of other surface water systems from which to recruit talent. 

In choosing surface water, Jackson created for itself a host of challenges. But, in the view of Jason Barrett, associate extension professor with the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, 

Jackson’s decision was not a fatal flaw. Other cities – like Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville – also pull from surface water sources without nearly the issues facing their Mississippi neighbor. 

“I don’t think Jackson’s issue is the quality of the source,” Barrett said. “I think Jackson’s problem is management.”

The rise and fall of a city

Jackson’s population, which hovered just above 21,000 when it opened its first filtration plant, continually swelled over the next few decades as it matured from a dusty river town to a bustling metropolis. 

More than 60,000 people called Jackson home by the start of the second World War, and the city was laying hundreds of miles of new pipes to accommodate the steady influx of households, schools and businesses. The filtration plant, which could pull just 4 million gallons of water a day from the Pearl River when it opened, was pumping up to twice that much by the mid-1940s.

Water quality problems and line breakages were common during those early years, newspaper records show, but it wasn’t until January 1944 that Jackson experienced its first widespread water loss. After a valve in the pumping station broke, the entire system shut down for two days and caused a panic among residents. 

“For 30 years, the Waterworks department has efficiently operated,” then-Mayor Walter A. Scott told the Clarion Ledger at the time. “It has never before been completely broken down or shut down as it was from Friday until Sunday at 3 p.m.”

It was a harbinger of things to come as the city’s population continued to grow, putting additional strain on an already aging system. The next three decades saw a series of annexations – including one in 1976 that was called the largest in state history – that more than doubled Jackson’s geographic footprint to some 120 square miles and boosted its population to over 200,000 people.

By 1979, the state Board of Health issued a grave warning that Jackson’s main surface water system was operating near capacity. The city should add no new homes or industries until fixing its “problem-ridden water treatment system,” according to a Clarion Ledger article at the time. 

“It is clearly evident that some of the water problems were inherited with city expansions,” the board said. “Other problems are due to continuing neglect of adequate operation and maintenance procedures and lack of adequate planning and foresight by city officials for many years.”

The public scolding led to the approval of $4.4 million in water infrastructure improvements the following year, but it was not enough.

Just as Jackson was making plans for the biggest expansion its water system had seen in decades – its second water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis – its population and pocketbook was were about to shrink from the reverberations of societal upheaval that had started years earlier.

Mississippi, like many Southern states, went through a period of dramatic changes in the 1960s and 1970s as a system of legal white supremacy and violent oppression of Black people gave way to the expanding movement. The federal government struck down the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws that defined the way of life across the South and forced the integration of

Southerners largely balked at these changes. But in 1969, a decision finally forced Mississippi and other holdouts to begin desegregating. For Jackson municipal schools, the change came in 1970.

“Forty percent of the student body is gone overnight with desegregation in the city of Jackson,” said Robert Luckett, a historian at Jackson State University.  “Their parents are the political, social, economic, religious leaders of the state of Mississippi, and when they withdraw their children from the public schools – when they themselves withdraw from the city – you begin seeing almost immediately the subsequent withdrawal of support for all things Jackson.” 

White people, which had represented nearly two of every three  residents in 1960, accounted for just one in two by 1980 – and just one in six  by 2020. 

Their exodus coincided with sweeping new federal mandates. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, both passed in the 1970s, required most cities to invest in significant improvements to be able to comply with the strict new standards on testing and contaminant thresholds. 

Jackson was no exception, but not long after these rules kicked in, the federal government started to phase out its generous infrastructure grants in lieu of loans that municipalities would have to pay back. It was a double whammy for the capital city.

“I’m not sure you can point to any period in time and say, ‘this is when the problem occurred,’” former Mayor Harvey Johnson told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “But once the federal government took away its grant funding mechanism, that’s when local governments had to start relying on their own resources to get the job done. It especially hurt communities like Jackson with high incidents of poverty and low-income neighborhoods.”

Cozy relationship frays

Johnson was elected in 1997, and his ascension into office marked a historical milestone as the first time an African-American won the city’s mayor’s race. 

That distinction came with a new set of problems. Whatever cozy relationship might have existed between Jackson’s white mayors and the state’s majority white leadership was over now. Johnson and the Black mayors that came after him have faced skepticism and distrust when seeking financial aid for the struggling water system.

When the state approved a 1% sales tax for Jackson water improvements in 2009, lawmakers wouldn’t let the city control the funds. They instead created a nine-person commission outside the city’s purview to oversee and approve the tax fund’s expenditures. Johnson noted that the state placed no such restrictions on a similar sales tax for Tupelo, a majority white city in northeast Mississippi.

More recently, when Jackson received funds, the legislature singled out the city for extra oversight of its spending. And a bill that would have given Jackson an additional $42 million beyond what the ARPA rescue funds provided died in committee earlier this year.

State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson who works with local leaders to represent in the state house, said the lack of continuity in Jackson’s leadership has prevented the city from adopting a “long-term vision.”

“It takes more than a term to become familiar with the problems and how to address them and how to get the votes on the local level to pass it,” Frazier said.

And the plans that were in place often needed more money to actually be carried out, but lawmakers were hesitant to give Jackson more money after years of mismanagement.

Frazier said a popular sentiment in the capitol is, “Why should we send resources that they might squander?”

Reeves said in September the city doesn’t have a plan to fix its water woes and doubted it could be relied upon to provide one, echoing a sentiment that has rippled across the executive branch in recent weeks. In October, he issued a press release criticizing Lumumba’s handling of the water crisis and accusing him of acting in bad faith.

Lumumba disputed that he has no plan to fix the water system. During a September press conference, the mayor held up several documents outlining needed repairs and associated costs – documents he said he had previously shared with state elected officials. He also named previous Black mayors, including his father, who died in office in 2014, and said they, too, had tried to work with the state on this issue.

“The reality is that (former Mayor) Tony Yarber asked for money to deal with this issue. The reality is that my father asked for money to deal with this challenge,” Lumumba said. “I know that Mayor Harvey Johnson asked for money to deal with this challenge.”

USA TODAY Network reached out to both Reeves and Lumumba through their representatives, but neither was made available for comment.

Theft, broken promises and distrust

As the cost to fix Jackson’s problems climbs, the city’s utility revenues are in a freefall. 

Despite raising water and sewer rates several times in the past two decades, Jackson has struggled to generate enough revenue to keep the operation financially solvent. 

Part of the issue is its dwindling customer base. Jackson has lost utility sales as its population declines and major customers like schools and hospitals disconnect from the system in lieu of more stable sources of water like wells. 

But it’s also because of rampant theft by residents who altered meters and connections to avoid paying for water, as well as by city workers who circumvented the billing system and bribed customers to give them cash in exchange for wiping out their monthly bills. A pair of investigations, one launched in 2015 and the other in 2019, nabbed more than two dozen people in a scheme that then-Public Works Director Bob Miller called “the worst I’ve ever seen.” 

But perhaps the biggest culprit is a faulty water meter and billing system installed by German technology company Siemens as part of a $91 million contract signed in 2012. 

The meters didn’t link up to the billing system as promised, measured usage incorrectly and resulted in some customers getting overcharged while others didn’t get billed at all. The city sued Siemens and settled in 2020 for about $90 million, but Jackson is still reeling from the mess and doesn’t anticipate a resolution until late 2024.

“In my household, we have not gotten the bill in five months,” said Fletcher, the Jackson resident. “We’ve called to the city water department to ask about the bill, and they said, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten you a bill yet.’ So we’re just holding our breath to see what five months of a bill will look like.”

Utility sales to customers, which in 2014 reached a peak of more than $69 million, fell to less than $48 million in 2020, the latest year for which data was available. 

Meanwhile, its accounts receivables — mainly unpaid water bills — continued to climb. In 2003, Jackson was owed some $6 million in unpaid bills. By 2020, that number reached nearly $55 million. Customers now owe the city more than they’ve paid.

“It’s kind of like the frog in the pot,” said Quentin Whitwell, who served on the Jackson City Council from 2011-2014. “You’re in water and don’t realize it’s boiling until it’s too late. My observation today is that, you know, it all came to that boiling point, and everybody was caught off guard.”

When the system finally snaps

As the city’s financial fortunes have faltered, so too has its ability to keep its water department fully staffed. Over the last two decades, former plant employees said, the institutional knowledge needed to operate a complex system such as Jackson’s was depleted as longtime workers became dissatisfied and left. 

Employment at the water plants became top heavy with managers who knew little about the operations, while experienced workers got squeezed out, said Ronald Gilbert, who started in 1995 as an operator at J.H. Fewell before moving to operation supervisor at O.B. Curtis. 

Gilbert said the system, which always struggled on a shoestring budget, started to strain in the late 1990s. By the time he left in 2005, he said, things were getting worse.

“Not enough money, natural age and loss of skilled people,” Gilbert said. “You put that together, and anything’s going to fail.”

Gilbert said that during his tenure, the city operated its water system with a crew of about 35 people. In January 2020, just seven people were working in the entire water department, city records show. 

The city council approved across-the-board pay raises for plant operators in November 2021. But the increase did not alleviate staffing concerns in the way city administrators had hoped.

Jackson’s water system now has so few operators that some are forced to work up to 75 hours a week without overtime pay just to cover all the shifts, and supervisors are taking on the extra load in addition to their managerial duties, according to an assessment of the city’s water system conducted earlier this year.

The staffing shortages have contributed to widespread failures, including the inability to routinely monitor and maintain the system to prevent pressure loss and water contamination, a fact seized upon by the Environmental Protection Agency during a February 2020 site visit to the facility amid ongoing concerns. 

Inspectors also found numerous leaks and line breaks – as many as five or six a day – leading to a loss of water pressure and requiring the city to issue boil-water notices. In just four years, the report noted, Jackson had sent out more than 750 such notices.

The EPA slapped Jackson with an emergency administrative order citing numerous problems, including inadequate staffing, high sediment levels and poor corrosion control, all of which put consumers’ health at risk. Jackson must now implement a comprehensive plan to address the issues, but it told the EPA it lacks the funds to make improvements. 

It wasn’t the first time the city has run afoul of safe drinking water regulations. In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Health notified Jackson that several of its water samples exceeded the maximum amount of allowable lead – 15 parts per billion. The state determined that the O.B. Curtis plant had a failing corrosion control system, which is supposed to prevent lead and copper in the pipes from dissolving into the drinking water.

Jackson was ordered to fix this problem, but it continues to rack up violations for non-compliance. According to a recent notice the city distributed to customers, from “2018 to 2022, we failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for our system which is a violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.”

In addition to increased state and federal oversight, the city also now faces a series of lawsuits from citizens claiming they’ve been poisoned by lead and plagued by water shutoffs. This summer’s crisis was just the latest to leave Jackson residents without water for long periods of time – they faced a similar scenario after a February 2021 ice storm deprived them of water for weeks.

The most recent of these lawsuits, filed in September, claimed Jackson leaders have long ignored the need to upgrade the system and could have avoided all of this had they just done their jobs.

“The people of Jackson, like all people in this country, deserve access to clean and safe water,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement after meeting with Jackson officials in September. “They also deserve more than words – they need action.”

That the city’s water system would collapse amid finger-pointing and federal oversight was likely far from the minds of those who celebrated its first filtration plant that cold November day more than a century ago.

But at least one person there felt the occasion held a lesson for future Jacksonians. Speaking to the crowd of how the city put aside differing opinions and rallied around the plan to filter river water, then-City Attorney William Hemingway called the plant a “monument to harmony and unity of purpose.” He said it should remind people of the value of working together.

“And if at any time discord comes among us,” Hemingway said, “let us look to this matter and give up personal matters for the common good.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes  the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, MCIR, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

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

More than $35 million in ARPA money granted for Jackson water repairs

157 views – Mississippi – 2022-11-04 14:28:07

Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, as they walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. Jackson's water system partially failed following flooding and heavy rainfall that exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants.

The City of Jackson received more than more than $35 million in money for projects in connection with water and infrastructure for the city just a month after the city requested the money in September during a City Council meeting.

The city in September authorized submitting a 50-50 matching grant application to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for the Mississippi Municipality and County Water and Infrastructure grant program for matching project funds.

On Friday, the City of Jackson was approved for seven projects in the first round of…

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Jackson receives $36M in ARPA funds


State awards $180 million in ARPA water and sewer funds, includes $36 million for Jackson

The awarded $180 million in matching funds on Friday for water, wastewater and storm water projects.

The amount includes $35.6 million for Jackson, exactly what the city applied for last month from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, which is administering the match program known as the Municipality & County Water Infrastructure Grant Program, or MCWI.

In total, the $180 million MDEQ awarded on Friday is less than half, 41%, of the $435 million that cities and counties applied for from the fund. The first round of awards leaves $270 million remaining in the MCWI fund. MDEQ clarified that $180 million was the maximum amount it could award in the first round of funding under SB 2822. A release from Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said that the agency will begin a second round of funding in the spring.

The dollar-for-dollar match gives Jackson, which has said it needs $2 billion to fix its drinking water and wastewater systems, a total of $71.3 million in ARPA money for the following water projects:

• Jackson J.H. Fewell Plant Filter and Transmission Line Project Drinking Water ($8.8 million from MCWI)
• Jackson O.B. Curtis Raw Water Pump Replacement Drinking Water ($1.65 million)
• Jackson O.B. Curtis/J.H. Fewell Chemical Feed Automation Drinking Water ($1.45 million)
• Jackson O.B. Curtis General Filter Upgrade Project Drinking Water ($8.8 million)
• Jackson J.H. Fewell General Pump Repair and Replacement Drinking Water ($2.75 million)
• Jackson West Bank Interceptor Sewer Line Repair and Rehabilitation Project Wastewater ($7.5 million)
• Jackson Mill Street Sewer Basin Reconstruction Wastewater ($4.7 million)

Horhn said on Friday that “we are looking for the state to do more once the regular session begins in January.”

Overall, 130 projects around the state received funding: $93 million went to 76 wastewater projects, $47 million went to 36 drinking water projects, and $35 million went to 18 storm water projects.

Rankin County received the most money for a single project, getting $14.5 million for its “watershed protection and restoration program.” Meridian received the next highest project award with $8.9 million to improve its wastewater system as required in a federal consent decree.

See the table below for a full list of awarded projects:

Jackson water: Congress calls for probe of spending


Lumumba, Reeves continue to point fingers as Congress calls for probe of Jackson water spending

About a month from a unified effort to lift Jackson out of its water crisis, city and officials continue to trade public jabs, with the future of the water system on the line.

Meanwhile, the federal government is now tackling the crisis on multiple fronts, with members of Congress on Monday calling for an investigation into the state’s infrastructure spending.

Gov. Tate Reeves released a statement Monday criticizing Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba for being unwilling to work with the Unified Command Structure, a multi-agency taskforce that the state formed in late August to help diagnose, fund and fix issues at Jackson’s main water treatment plant.

Specifically, Reeves said city officials told his office they were unwilling to participate in the state’s emergency contract procurement to hire staff across the Jackson water system for a year. The posted the “request for qualifications,” or RFQ, on Friday.

“That would be a huge mistake by the city,” the governor said. “They would be communicating through this action that they no longer desire state assistance and insist on going it alone.”

Reeves said in his statement that the Environmental Protection Agency was pressing the state to hire support staff, and to “take the lead” in procuring the contract. The EPA told Jackson officials in late September it was “prepared to take action,” and then two weeks ago the Jackson City Council voted to enter into a confidentiality agreement with the Department of Justice in discussing a settlement.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves greets members of the Mississippi National Guard at a water distribution site located at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, September 1, 2022.

Lumumba disputed that he was unwilling to participate in the unified approach, saying instead that city officials hadn’t had a chance to review the RFQ before the state published it.

“The City of Jackson has made no mention of ending the City’s cooperation with the Unified Command Structure,” the mayor said in a statement Monday. “What the city will not do is agree to a Request for Qualifications, without the entire Unified Command Structure, which includes the city, having had an opportunity to first contribute, revise or approve the language.”

Jackson, as the RFQ states, would be the entity funding the contract. Hence, Lumumba added: “It is only reasonable to expect the City to play a role in hiring that company.” 

The RFQ seeks staffing to operations, maintenance, and management of both of the city’s surface water treatments plants — O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell — as well as Jackson’s tanks and well facilities, for a year.

The governor’s statement says Jackson officials had a chance to review the “technical components of the request,” but did not mention any other involvement from the city.

Before the state intervened in late August to take over the O.B. Curtis operations, Lumumba said the city was looking for an operations and management contractor to run the treatment plant.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, with City of Jackson Communications Manager Melissa Payne, fields questions during a community meeting held to update the public on the water system, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2022, at College Hill Missionary Baptist Church.

But at a community meeting on Sept. 13, the mayor said the company he was looking at would no longer negotiate because it was now talking with the state instead. Two days later, WLBT reported, the state awarded an operations contract to Hemphill Construction that lasts two months.

As part of the Unified Command Structure the state established in late August, the state and Jackson officials each agreed to pay half the costs for emergency repairs. then declared a federal emergency, which included paying for 75% of water system improvement costs for 90 days. That cost-share expires on Nov. 29.

The state’s Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, contracts expire on Thursday, said. For weeks, the city and state have relied on the EMAC program to help rehabilitate O.B. Curtis through the work of out-of-state water operators.

Thompson, Maloney launch investigation over state’s role

U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to Reeves on Monday asking for information on the state’s spending of federal drinking water funds. The two Democrats expressed concern over how Mississippi has divvied up historic amounts of federal funding thus far.

“The and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law made billions of dollars available to Mississippi to address a variety of problems,” the letter says, “However, criteria used by (state legislation) to allocate funding — such as median household income, possible population decline and unemployment rate — may limit the funding Jackson receives compared to other locales, despite Jackson’s much greater need.”

In the letter, Thompson and Maloney ask Reeves for a breakdown of how the state was allocating money from the American Rescue Plan Act. They also ask for details on the extra oversight state lawmakers required for sending matching funds to Jackson.

State lawmakers required that matching ARPA funds provided to Jackson go through the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, a burden placed on no other municipality in the state.

Jackson residents and supporters hold signs as they march to the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Miss. to protest the ongoing water issues in the city on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

The letter also asks about an “arbitrary” $500,000 cap the state established in forgiving loans paid for with money from the Infrastructure Law.

The investigation comes after both the NAACP and the Poor People’s Campaign have in recent weeks called for legal action against the state for depriving the majority-Black city of support for its water system.

The questions over state support to Jackson follow a history of Mississippi lawmakers putting up obstacles for the city to access needed infrastructure funding.

In 2013, lawmakers voted to allow Jackson to add a 1-cent sales tax to help pay for infrastructure. However, lawmakers took the unusual step of creating a commission to oversee the spending and projects, over objections from city leaders, and lawmakers exempted many purchases from the additional tax. So far, most of the projects approved have been for street repairs.

In 2021, lawmakers killed a proposal from the city to allow city voters to decide whether to levy an additional, citywide 1-cent sales tax increase for water and sewerage repairs. The push came after historic winter storms that year left much of the city without water for weeks.

Also in 2021, the city of Jackson unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers for $47 million in funding for drinking water improvements. The Jackson City Council also requested another $60 million to build new water tanks. With the state relatively flush with cash, lawmakers approved spending $356 million in projects statewide, but earmarked only $3 million for Jackson.

In an interview earlier this year with Mississippi Today, Lumumba described the ’s attitude toward Jackson as both racist” and “paternalistic” in terms of how the capitol city is treated compared to other governmental entities.

Mississippi Today reporters Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender contributed to this report.

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

Judge rules public funds to private schools is unconstitutional


Judge rules public funds to private schools is unconstitutional

A judge ruled on Thursday that the giving $10 million in pandemic relief funds to private schools for infrastructure improvements is unconstitutional.

The passed the bills appropriating this money at the end of the 2022 session in early April, a move that frustrated some advocates and legislators. The funding comes from the (ARPA), which gave the Mississippi Legislature $1.8 billion to spend on pandemic response, government services, and infrastructure improvements to water, sewer, and broadband. 

The lawsuit was filed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Democracy Forward, and the on behalf of Parents for , a Jackson-based national nonprofit. Attorneys from these three parties argued that Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution prohibits allocating any public funds for private schools, making the money allocated earlier this year unconstitutional. They asked the court to block the state from enforcing the law. 

Section 208, the portion of the Mississippi Constitution in question, reads in its entirety: 

“No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other educational funds of this state; nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.” 

READ MORE: Lawmakers spent public money on private schools. Does it violate the Mississippi Constitution?

At the Aug. 23 hearing, attorneys for the state argued that because the Legislature appropriated the money to the Department of Finance and Administration to a grant program for private schools, instead of directly to those private schools, these laws did not violate the state constitution. 

The decision from Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin clearly rebukes this argument, pointing out that Section 208 does not specifically name the legislature and that the prohibition on allocating public money to private schools is not limited to any specific government body. 

“The state cannot avoid compliance with our Constitution simply by delegating the power to disburse appropriated funds to an executive agency,” the order reads. 

Joann Mickens, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, testified at the hearing that any public money spent on private schools hurts public school students due to the historic underfunding of public schools. 

Martin incorporated this argument into the order, pointing to the recent infrastructure issues facing the Jackson Public School District as a symptom of that underfunding. She also referenced the competition between private and public schools, and its subsequent impact on public school enrollment and funding, when granting a permanent injunction in the case, prohibiting the state from dispersing the $10 million. 

The ’s office did not indicate whether they would appeal this decision, with a spokesperson for the agency saying that they are “still evaluating the State’s next steps.”

When asked about a possible appeal by the state, Will Bardwell, an attorney with Democracy Forward, said that he hopes they will let the case rest but are prepared to fight if necessary. 

“The Mississippi Legislature has a long, sad history of undermining public schools,” Bardwell said. “I would like to believe that the attorney general would allow this chapter to end here and now, but that’s up to her. If they go forward, we will fight them every step of the way.”

Bardwell also added that this victory is broader than the specific circumstances of the case. 

“This case is about more than $10 million dollars in infrastructure grants,” he said. “The constitution says that no public money can be appropriated to private schools, and if courts can make an exception for $10 million dollars, then they can make an exception for anything. Judge Martin’s decision made clear that there are no exceptions in the constitution.” 

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

City approves plan to seek more than $35 million in water-repair plan

208 views – Mississippi – 2022-09-23 12:07:25

Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, as they walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. Jackson's water system partially failed following flooding and heavy rainfall that exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants.

Jackson’s City Council is asking for more than $35 million in money for eight projects in connection with water and infrastructure projects for the city.

The city authorized submitting a 50-50 matching grant application to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for the Mississippi Municipality and County Water and Infrastructure grant program for matching project funds.

The request came during a special-called city council meeting Thursday afternoon.

“We are going to apply for a number of projects both at O.B. Curtis Water Plant, J.H. Fewell…

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Mayor Lumumba tackles criticism and deplores plans to take water control away from Jackson


In town hall, Mayor Lumumba tackles criticism and deplores plans to take water control away from Jackson

by Alex Rozier,
September 14, 2022

Inside the College Hill Baptist Church in West Jackson, in front of a tall, blue backlit cross, the city’s town hall to discuss its unceasing water woes Tuesday night began with a prayer.

“We thank you now Lord that we have assembled in this place, to discuss issues within this city, particularly our water,” said Louis Wright, the city’s chief administrative officer. “Continue to uplift the mayor as he looks out for the citizens of this community. We pray that Lord you will give us the blessings and the wherewithal that we need in order to overcome the issues that we’re going through.” 

On the 47th consecutive day of a -imposed citywide boil water notice, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba went into great detail Tuesday night to discuss the logistics of Jackson’s road ahead. During the three-hour meeting, Lumumba talked through bullet points listed on a placard in front of the altar. 

Starting on a more personal note than usual for his recent public appearances, the mayor talked about moving to Jackson with his family at the age of five in 1988. The next year, Lumumba saw the fragility of the city’s infrastructure, he recalled, after some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Jackson shut down the water system.

“This is something that has unfortunately become a way of life in Jackson,” he said. Later, he asked the tired faces scattered in the pews in front of him, “How beautiful would it be, for us to say, regardless of party, that we were able to solve this problem in our lifetime?”

Lumumba, along with his chief financial officer, Fidelis Malembeka, pushed back against recent stories questioning how prepared the city leadership is to tackle the current crisis. Specifically, they defended against the idea that the city lacks a plan, or that it doesn’t truly know how much it would cost to fix the water system. 

The mayor said he feels it’s unfair for state and federal officials to criticize Jackson for not having a full plan when, after he’s shared what planning the city does have, those same officials offer no feedback. 

“There is little to no communication around, ‘Well your plan is lacking this,’” Lumumba said. “When it comes down to it and there’s no funding, it’s later said, ‘You have no plan.’ The reality is that not only this administration, but every administration in the recent history of the city of Jackson has had some type of plan. 

“There’s a difference between not having a plan and not having mutual priority over its funding.”

Pointing to the existence of a “very detailed plan” the city has shared with the Environmental Protection Agency, Malembeka echoed a clarification Lumumba made just earlier this week, which is that the plan is hidden behind a court-ordered confidentiality agreement.

City of Jackson Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka, Jr., during a community meeting held to update the public on the water system, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2022, at College Hill Missionary Baptist Church.

“I want everyone to understand that the city does have a plan,” he said. “Right now we have restrictions because of the confidentiality agreement that’s in place. That’s a very detailed plan, and once we’re able to share it you will see.” 

Mississippi Today could not confirm with the EPA the existence of the non-disclosure agreement by the publish date of this story.  Earlier this year, WLBT reported that neither the city nor the EPA could disclose a report that informed increases in Jackson’s sewer and water bill rates, although it’s unclear if that is due to the same confidentiality agreement.  

Lumumba, on multiple occasions, estimated that fully repairing the drinking water system would cost a billion dollars, although none of the spending proposals the city has released total more than $80 million.

“Someone will say, you have a billion dollar need, but you’re only showing us $80 million,” Malembeka. “Let’s get to the $80 million first. You can’t get to the billion dollars without getting through $80 million.”

As for reaching that goal, he added that earlier on Tuesday the Jackson City Council approved the next year’s budget that includes $30.8 million for sewer repairs and $30 million for water infrastructure. The council also adopted a plan to spend $34 million of Jackson’s $42 million in funds on water and sewer, which the state will match on a dollar for dollar basis, Malembeka said. 

Lumumba then addressed reports that state lawmakers are discussing a number of pathways that could take Jackson’s water system out of the city’s hands, such as privatization and regionalization. 

“The problem with privatization is that companies aren’t taking over your system in order to be benevolent, they’re not taking over your system just because they want to come help,” the mayor said. “They want to extract a profit from you.”

Policy experts who spoke to Mississippi Today confirmed Lumumba’s concern that private water systems often raise water bill rates, but added that those systems also have less violations of safe drinking laws. Moreover, any rate increases would have to be approved by the state Public Service Commission. 

Regionalization, or combining nearby cities’ water systems, can create “economies of scale,” lowering costs for a financially struggling city like Jackson, those experts said. But the mayor called it a “problematic solution,” questioning whether it would really lower costs for Jackson and how the needs among the different cities would be prioritized. 

After an hour-long, extensive presentation from the two city bureaucrats on Jackson’s financial outlook, officials opened the floor to questions and comments from residents. 

Ronald Gilbert, former operations supervisor at the O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, shares with the Mayor and others his experience of working at the water treatment plant, during a community meeting held at College Hill Missionary Baptist Church, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2022.

Ronald Gilbert talked about his time working as an operations supervisor at the O.B. Curtis treatment plant for five years. Gilbert was critical of the city’s hiring and recruiting process for plant workers.

“We weren’t hiring the right people in (1995), we weren’t hiring the right people in 2005, and now you’re going to farm it out to other states,” he said, referencing recent support from other states to bring O.B. Curtis back online as part of a mutual aid agreement.

Gilbert added that when he left his job in 2005 to work in Georgia, he doubled his salary “as a grunt.” 

One woman, Evelyn Ford, talked about her challenges picking up water at one of the distribution sites. Ford had gone to get water for other homes, and said that after being told there was a limit on how much water she could get, a state trooper stopped her and asked for her license. The trooper called her “disrespectful,” she said, and later asked her to leave.

“I might be able to get the water, but I felt humiliated,” Ford said. “We’re already having a hard enough time as it is asking for water from someone else, now you’re telling me you’re going to restrict me.” 

Residents vented on issues outside of just water, discussing , economic development, roads, and creeks overflowing with sewage. 

Lumumba, summarizing the sentiment he’s shared at press conferences for the last two years asking for outside help with the city’s water system, responded to the speakers bluntly: “You have a city where our needs exceed our ability to pay for them.”

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


Leaders ask Jackson mayor: Where’s your water plan?


With long-term Jackson water fix in mind, leaders ask the mayor: Where’s your plan?

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Tuesday that the city has had “many, many plans” to fund repairs for its beleaguered drinking water system.

But as of this week, Lumumba had not shared a comprehensive, long-term vision for improving the city’s water infrastructure system with and federal leaders — the only ones who can pay for the needed repairs and replacements necessary to ensure safe, reliable water for the future. 

Generations of Jackson elected officials neglected the capital city’s water system, culminating with its failure to produce running water last week. State and federal leaders, who for decades ignored city leaders’ dire warnings and funding requests, acted swiftly to restore water service to the city’s 150,000-plus residents.

With running water again flowing across the capital city, state leaders are now turning their focus to the critical negotiations about how — or even if — they can ensure Mississippi’s largest city won’t lose water again.

Jackson officials have been caught in a “fluid” planning cycle, city spokesman Justin Vicory explained. The city in recent years has planned spending based on what state and federal money is available. Meanwhile, state and federal officials say they need a plan from Jackson in order to free up funding. 

Lumumba has, as recently as last week, mentioned creating a committee to formalize a new, long-term strategy. While staying quiet on many specifics, he has said that part of the new plan will include looking to contract out operations and maintenance services to support water treatment. 

But without that plan in hand, state and federal officials are left with several unanswered fundamental questions as they begin to negotiate a long-term solution: Which repairs take top priority? Is a patchwork of repairs feasible, or is system replacement the only option? How much, even ballpark, might a long-term solution cost?

The mayor has repeatedly estimated that $1 billion would fix the city’s water system, although none of Jackson’s released spending plans tally up anywhere near that total.

During a meeting with the mayor and Mississippi’s congressional delegation at Jackson State University on Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan was asked about what constitutes a plan.

“When I think about a plan, I think about what’s required to unlock federal dollars,” Regan said. “If we want to have access to the state revolving loan fund resources, the (money from the State Revolving Loan Fund) that currently exists, being competitive for the bipartisan infrastructure dollars that will exist, we need to see a plan in place that demonstrates how those resources will be spent and what they will be spent on.”

Regan said that there’s currently $43 million in existing funds from the EPA’s State Revolving Loan Fund that Jackson has access to, and that Mississippi will receive over $26 million through the program later this year.

Both Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in recent days have called out city leadership for not producing a long-term water improvement plan. The city’s Democratic delegates at the state capitol, Senate leader Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, and House Speaker Philip Gunn have all also said they haven’t seen a plan.

“I have not seen a plan. I’ve heard from the mayor and others that they have a plan, that they’re working on it, but I have not physically seen a plan with my own eyes,” Thompson told Mississippi Today last week. “… It would be difficult to get the kind of resources needed to fix the Jackson water system without a verifiable plan.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve never received a real plan from the city of Jackson on how to improve their water system so that the state could continue funding it,” Reeves said on Monday.

READ MORE: Rep. Bennie Thompson: Treat Jackson fairly, but if it can’t run water system, let someone else

The mayor disputed those assertions in a press conference on Tuesday. And in response to a Mississippi Today public records request, the mayor’s office sent several documents on Tuesday that lay out short- and medium-range water system funding ideas. The longest term spending published in this trove of newly released documents is from a 2020 report that laid out a water spending plan of five years.

Responding to Reeves specifically, Lumumba on Tuesday pointed to a letter he sent the governor on Mar. 3, 2021, asking for $47 million in repairs after last year’s winter storms knocked out water service to thousands of Jacksonians. Hosemann, Gunn, Thompson and ’s legislative delegation were all copied on the letter. State officials, Lumumba said, never replied to the letter.  

“I know a good part of the narrative has been a lack of a plan for the city,” Lumumba said. “You, the media, have asked questions about that, and we’ve shared that we’ve had many, many plans.”

Lumumba’s office, for the first time on Tuesday, shared several documents with Mississippi Today that itemize specific needs, including improvements at the city’s largest water treatment plant, replacements of water main lines, and pay raises for the city’s water operators.

But it remains unclear what Jackson’s current spending proposal is.

One of the documents the city shared with Mississippi Today on Tuesday was a 45-page commissioned report from three private engineering firms that lays out $80 million in proposed water spending over five years. The $80 million in projects consists mostly of distribution line and water main repairs, and also includes some elevated water tank improvements. 

A separate document the city released is a plan Lumumba said he presented to Hinds County’s legislative delegation last year, prioritizing spending of the city’s money. The slideshow lays out about $21 million in proposed repairs to the O.B. Curtis water plant, about $15 million in fixes for J.H Fewell water plant and about $34 million in distribution system repairs.

Another guiding document the mayor shared with Mississippi Today on Tuesday is a list of repairs outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency in an Administrative Order on Consent the agency entered into with Jackson in 2021. While the list includes deadlines for each repair, Lumumba said the EPA has been flexible in negotiating timelines. 

The mayor added Tuesday that the city expects to finish rolling out its new water meters – which have been at the root of Jackson’s inability to bill customers, leading to a $90 million settlement with Siemens – by March of next year.

About an hour after Mississippi Today filed a records request for the plans the mayor discussed Tuesday, the city provided several documents. 

Yet three weeks ago, when another reporter asked for the city’s plan, the mayor made no reference to those documents, instead saying, “We look forward to sharing our fully-outlined plan – one that is supported by the expert advice of the U.S. Water Alliance and the Kellogg Foundation.”

When the reporter, WJTV’s Richard Lake, asked the mayor’s office for a copy of any plan, Lake was told by a city employee, “You’ll need to file a records request.” 

Ten days later, the request came back in the city’s automated filing system as “no records exist.” When Lake asked for clarification from a city employee, the reporter was told, simply: “There is a plan that is under review.”

Meanwhile, many people outside Jackson City Hall — Democrats and Republicans, Black and white officials, state and federal officials, reporters and Jackson taxpayers — are increasingly asking why the city has not produced a plan, leading to questions of whether the city can the water system by itself any longer.

“If (the city’s) plan demonstrates that they can operate a system and get the state health department’s approval as well as the enforcement order from EPA lifted, then we’re off to the races,” Thompson said. “But you can’t put the lives of your citizens at risk … we just, in good conscience, can’t do that. If that’s not available, you then look, perhaps, at an alternative management.

“… I understand that there are some other interests out here that want to help the city get the plan done,” Thompson continued. “As soon as it’s completed, I would encourage that plan to be distributed as widely as possible. That, too, instills confidence in the public that something is being done.”

EXCLUSIVE: Rep. Bennie Thompson opens up about Jackson water crisis

Editor-in-chief Adam Ganucheau contributed reporting for this story. 

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today is one of five Jackson-based newsrooms working together since 2021 as Mississippi Spotlight, a local collaborative which is independently funded by Microsoft Corp. and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi. The collaborative’s current project — agreed upon by the cohort’s newsroom leaders, independent of guidance from the supporting grant makers — is the Jackson water crisis. As is our editorial policy since we launched in 2016, donors to Mississippi Today have no influence or control over editorial decisions.

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

JSU seeking federal funding to study water system, but state says it’s ‘not a guarantee’ 


JSU seeking federal funding to study water system, but state says it’s ‘not a guarantee’ 

Jackson University wants to use federal pandemic relief funds to study overhauling the campus water and sewer system, an investment that officials say is necessary to maintain health and safety as the city’s water emergency has upended the start of the fall semester. 

But the Department of Finance and Administration – the state agency tasked with overseeing the $25 million in funds allocated to Mississippi’s public university system – can’t say yet if it will fund JSU’s proposal.  

Earlier this year, DFA invited all eight public universities to submit proposals that represent necessary investments in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. The department is now evaluating projects for compliance.  

“I think it’s safe to say that the goal is that everyone would get something, but that is certainly not a guarantee,” spokesperson Marcy Scoggins said. 

JSU says that a new water system is so crucial, it will seek other state and federal funding if DFA does not approve its proposal. 

“This is something that we’re gonna actively try to do,” President Hudson told students during a virtual town hall on Tuesday following a question about JSU’s water system. “We have been working with state legislators over the years to obtain the funding to do this type of project. Step one is to do a study … that process will begin very soon.” 

The study also appears to have support from the Institutions of Higher Learning. IHL thinks the study falls under the parameters for this federal spending and anticipates it will be complete by the summer of 2023, spokesperson Caron Blanton wrote in an email. 

“DFA will determine if ARPA funds can be used for this purpose once the study is complete,” Blanton wrote. 

In May, DFA sent a letter to IHL, outlining preliminary ARPA funding that each of the eight universities could receive for projects overseen by the Bureau of Buildings, Grounds and Real Property Management. The letter requested each university submit proposals that outline scope, an engineering firm preference, and any additional funding amounts the schools would provide. 

ARPA funds must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent before the end of 2026. 

JSU’s preliminary allocation, per the letter, was about $2.2 million, but the four projects that the university sought funding for totaled $5 million. All four of these plans, JSU’s proposal says, “must be completed regardless of funding by ARPA.” 

JSU’s proposed projects and the amount of ARPA funding requested, in order of priority, are: 

  • A water and sewer line assessment ($500,000)
  • Making a plan to move the university’s potable water system off of the city’s ($250,000)
  • Repairing and enlarging storm water pipes ($2.3 million)
  • Constructing a water filtration system ($2 million) 

Installing a water filtration system will cost more than $2 million, but the proposal says that “without an adequate filtration system, JSU will continue to suffer from environmental and health alerts, boil water notices, and unexpected budgetary emergencies which impacts the ability to provide adequate maintenance.” 

These are the stakes of JSU not receiving ARPA funding for these projects, as the university sees it: “If this project does not proceed, JSU will continue to suffer from unexpected water and sewer line failures with no ability to develop data-driven solutions to effectively establish short-term and long-term solutions.” 

The proposal also says if the university is not able to procure funding for an isolated potable water system, the downside would be “required evacuation of over two thousand students as well as faculty and staff” as well as “loss of our fire protection systems.” 

The four sections of the proposal paint a high-level look at the state of the water system at JSU. 

The university pays for city water to support heating, cooling, potable and non-potable water on the historic campus, which is located in one of the first communities to be developed in Jackson, a neighborhood just a few minutes west of downtown. 

The water lines that feed JSU are among the oldest in the city – more than 100 years old. 

“Another aspect of these aged water lines would be the materials from which they were made,” the proposal says. “Some of these materials, which will include cast iron and lead, have become very brittle, fragile, and toxic.” 

During heavy storms, water erodes the grounds and intrudes into buildings due to the inadequate capacity of the campus’s storm water lines. 

“An improvement in this area will save us repair dollars for our structures,” the report says. 

The goal of the water and sewer line assessment would be to create “a comprehensive capital plan” so that JSU can understand what aspects of the water infrastructure on campus needs to be repaired, replaced or upgraded. The proposal says this will help the university address “any potential concerns” related to deteriorating water lines, unreliable control system, or lead in the campus’s drinking water. 

The instability of the water lines on campus also contributes to water and sewer back-ups that cause odors and unsafe conditions, the proposal says, noting that a sewer line on Lynch Street recently collapsed. 

During the legislative session, IHL requested more than $17 million in funds for water-related projects on JSU’s campus, but the did not fulfill those requests. Many of those initial requests are similar to the ones JSU included in its proposal to DFA, according to a funding request IHL provided to Mississippi Today, but others were more immediate – and expensive, like $2 million for the installation of water meters. 

A bill proposed last session by Rep. Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia, sought $8 million for JSU for costs associated with building a separate water system. It died in committee.

The city’s water issues have periods of low to no water pressure at JSU as far back as 2010. 

At the town hall on Tuesday, Hudson asked students to be patient as the university seeks state and federal funding for a new water system. 

“These things take time in order to happen,” he said. 

One student asked if the plan to build a new water system would affect tuition. Hudson replied that it’s “far too early to tell” the financial impact of a new water system or of the water crisis. 

Hudson added that while the university’s current water system “does bring costs,” because JSU pays the city for water, students won’t bear the cost of a new water system in the form of higher tuition.  

“There are resources that can help us undertake such a massive project,” he said. “We’re not looking to pass these costs onto our students.” 

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

Lawyers argued that ARPA funds should not be given to private schools

118 views – Mississippi – 2022-08-23 16:12:16

A Chancery Judge is set to rule in Parents for v. Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

Why is Parents for Public Schools suing Mississippi?

The claims the Mississippi violated law by appropriating $10 million to private schools.

After a Tuesday hearing, Hinds County Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin asked attorneys from both sides for proposed findings of facts to be turned in by Monday so that she may rule on a case in which federal funds could be given to private schools in Mississippi.


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