Jackson meets the man tasked with fixing its water system
The new temporary face of Jackson’s water rehabilitation introduced himself Wednesday night to residents at Forest Hill High School, a recurring backdrop for the city’s drinking water shortcomings.
About 40 residents lined the long lunch tables in the high school’s cafeteria as the night began with Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba catching the audience up on the latest federal intervention.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice appointed Ted Henifin, a veteran water and sewer system professional, to head the third-party management team that will steer the city’s drinking water rehabilitation over the next year. The goal, as the DOJ explained in its order, is to stabilize the water system while the city negotiates a longer-term solution with the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Mississippi Today reported last week, the order gives Henifin’s team broader authority than what Jackson would be allowed normally. For instance, the new management won’t have to comply with state procurement laws that dictate how to advertise and award contracts with public funding. It also has added power to pass rate increases on customer’s water bills, and, because it’s not a government body, it won’t be subject to public record laws.
At Forest Hill High, which often feels the brunt of water pressure issues because of its elevation and its distance from the treatment plants, audience members in the the large cafeteria asked about what these changes meant for their daily lives.
The first person to step up, Johnny Dickerson, wondered why he was seeing high prices on his water bills despite unreliable service.
“You got a $1,000, maybe $1,500 or $2,000 water bill, but you haven’t been using the water,” Dickerson said. “The water comes out brown and soapy, and you say boil it, but how are we going to pay a $5,000, $2,000, $1,000 bill for something we ain’t using?”
Lumumba, recognizing that Dickerson’s experience has been common among Jacksonians, replied that the issues with water meters haven’t been about their accuracy in measuring consumption, but rather communicating those measurements to the city’s offices to send out accurate bills. Residents often see high bills that have accumulated over months, rather than getting monthly bills, the mayor explained.
Dickerson cut the mayor off, saying it didn’t make sense that his bill would be so high if he wasn’t using the water. Frustrated, the man walked off before Lumumba could respond.
Other audience directed their questions at Henifin and the specifics of the new order. Brenda Scott, former mayoral candidate and president of the labor union for city employees, asked what will happen to Jackson’s water plant workers as Henifin’s team and contractors take over operations.
Lumumba said that no city employees will lose their job in the process. Henifin said the contractor will interview employees to see if they’re qualified to work on the team’s projects, in which case they would join the contractor and no longer be a city employee. The mayor added that if not chosen, water plant workers will be relocated within the public works department.
Contracting and water rates
Henifin addressed some of the details in the DOJ order the media has highlighted.
As far as the procurement process, he said Monday that the ability to bypass state law was included because of how long the process can often take, and the new management team only has a year to make a long list of improvements. Henifin added that he will uphold the principles of that law, such as fairness, transparency, and equity. He also said it will be a priority to hire small minority contractors, and there will be a workshop in January for those businesses looking to make bids.
Asked about water rates, Henifin initially said Monday during a press conference that he didn’t think Jackson could afford to do so because of the city’s high poverty rate. On Wednesday, he echoed that he wasn’t in favor of raising rates, but that he couldn’t rule it out.
The DOJ order requires Henifin to write up a funding strategy for the water system within 60 days. If that plan recommends raising rates, the order gives Henifin the ability to do so even if the City Council disapproves.
Replacing water lines
Asked about the city’s plan to upgrade its distribution system, Henifin detailed some of the next steps for making needed water line replacements.
“Here in Jackson you’ve got about 110 miles of small diameter pipe, which is unusual. Most large water systems have eliminated that,” he said. “Current engineering would say that a 6-inch diameter is the smallest water pipe you want to run down the street, and you’ve got a 100 miles of less than 6-inch pipe. You’ve got a lot of other pipe out there, there’s 400 and some miles total, but almost the first line in every study done (of Jackson’s system), the first recommendation is eliminate the small diameter pipes.”
Henifin estimated that it costs about $2 million to replace a mile of water lines, meaning to replace the 100 miles of smaller-than-recommended water lines would total $200 million.
He added that he expects by this summer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently received $20 million from Congress to aid Jackson, will begin work on 10 miles of line upgrades.
Looking down the road, with the current funding available, he said it’s realistic for Jackson to do about 20 miles of line replacements a year, making it a 5- to 10-year process to replace all the small diameter pipes.
‘This wasn’t in my plan‘
Before coming to Jackson, Henifin had just retired in February from a 15-year stint as general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which he said handled wastewater from 1.8 million Virginians. He had looked forward to taking a break, calling the job during the pandemic a “crushing” experience.
While no longer officially working, he took on a role as a senior fellow with the nonprofit U.S. Water Alliance, where he helped small communities access money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure act.
The nonprofit, as part of an equity initiative, soon connected with Jackson, which at the time was in the middle of a citywide boil water notice. Henifin began advising the city directly and started making regular visits in September. Eventually, when the DOJ began deliberating the city’s future, Henifin offered to take on the role as third-party manager.
“This wasn’t in my plan,” he said. “But as I saw I could offer connections, play off some of my experience, and I really felt the connection with the people I was working with, and I really felt for the 160,000 people in Jackson not having dependable drinking water, and I thought, maybe egotistically, maybe I could make a difference.”
Overall, Henifin, a University of Virginia graduate, spent about 40 years working in Virginia in different government roles, including in Hampton, a city with a similar population size as Jackson.
The DOJ order 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 support; and $66,000 for other expenses, such as phones, computers, and insurance.
The order prioritizes 13 projects for the third-party team, which range from making equipment upgrades at the treatment plants, to doing corrosion control, to coming up with a plan to sustainably fund Jackson’s water system for the years to come.