The City of Jackson’s ability to cope with high lead levels in portions of its water system is hampered by a decades-old issue: loss of population.

Pete Walley, the State of Mississippi’s long range economic development planner, said that ample tax base and prior planning are the primary considerations for properly maintaining critical infrastructure, such as municipal water systems.

“In Jackson, we’re down to about 180,000 people in what they call Jackson proper. In excess of 60% of the people are dependent on transfer payments. How do you manage and improve your infrastructure when you tax base is steadily decreasing?” Walley asked.

Between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census, Jackson was the only community in Hinds and Rankin counties whose population decreased, losing 14,007 people (7.5 percent). At the same time, Jackson’s adjacent communities saw increases of 31 percent. Jackson’s population peaked in the 1980s and has been declining since.

While many issues contribute to population decline, Walley notes that potential economic growth for any community is limited when there is not an investment in infrastructure.

Water pools in Jackson neighborhood
Water pools in Jackson neighborhood. Credit: Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

“Infrastructure needs are a given, a fundamental. You’ve got to have those in order to improve the economy or better (the state’s) quality of life,” he said.

In February, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a report on key infrastructure areas in need of improvement. Their priorities were based on the 2012 American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) release of the state-by-state infrastructure report card. Mississippi scored a C-, a grade that actually exceeds the national grade of D+.

It would cost the country $384 billion to fix just the drinking water and distribution system alone, the report estimates.

The report notes that Mississippi enjoys plentiful natural drinking water resources from underground aquifers that are are relatively safe from pollution. But the report says that drinking water treatment systems are “severely under-funded,”with less than 50 percent funding available from public sources.

“A rural, small-population state cannot keep up the pace of deterioration of water tanks, pipes, and treatment facilities,” the report states. “The health of the people of Mississippi is directly affected when drinking water infrastructure is allowed to be compromised due to the lack of funds to meet current environmental standards.”

The report estimates that to come up to ASCE’s standards, Mississippi would need to invest $7 billion in drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years as well as $4 billion in wastewater infrastructure.

“Carefully targeted initiatives to maintain and improve public infrastructure boosts a state’s long-term productivity,” the CBPP reported, “resulting in more economic growth and higher-wage jobs. In the short term, under the right conditions—including the current ones — public infrastructure investments also can create needed jobs.”

According to the city of Jackson, water and sewer utility bills have remained consistently at or below $20 per month. This money and any other capital improvement fund goes towards usage, maintenance, and improvement.  With a decreasing population, large overhauls on the pipe system and roads become less and less likely as the tax base to support major improvements shrinks with the population.

Dr. Corey Wiggins, director of Hope Policy Institute, said that this issue is not far removed from this legislative session with the Legislature considering a “Taxpayer Pay Raise Act” that would phase out segments of the income tax and the franchise tax.

Tax cuts are an easy sell to constituencies. Explaining the impact of the state income tax on your everyday life, not as easy, he notes.

“As we are having this conversation about tax cuts,” Wiggins said, “that could be money going to invest in our future. These are not separate issues. They intersect in important ways.”

“There are some really significant changes coming,” Walley said, “but we’re not thinking about those ideas. I’m not saying long range thinking should be all you think about it, but if the state leadership in 1975 had been thinking about the water system in 2015, we’d be in a completely different situation.”

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