Lumumba, Reeves continue to point fingers as Congress calls for probe of Jackson water spending
About a month removed from a unified effort to lift Jackson out of its water crisis, city and state 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 Mississippi Emergency Management Agency 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.
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 run 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.
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. President Joe Biden 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, MEMA 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 American Rescue Plan Act 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.
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 Legislature’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.