It all started with a Facebook argument.
On May 5, state Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, posted on the social site that he wishes “there was this much enthusiasm to rid crime and fix the streets of Jackson as there is to fight the expansion of the board that they still have a majority,” referring to the bill he championed and Gov. Phil Bryant recently signed to reorganize the Jackson airport board.
About 70 comments later, after Harkins’ fellow Republican from Rankin County, Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon, and Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry jumped into the discussion, Baker offered that if Perry disagreed with the airport bill “you’re going to really hate it when we pass a conservator law for municipalities like we have for school districts. Fair warning, they get it together or we will.”
State law permits the governor to declare a state of emergency and place school districts under the supervision of a temporary conservator if those districts face severe budget challenges or fail to meet minimum academic standards. Currently, four districts are under conservatorship, information from the state department of education shows.
Baker did not immediately return a phone message left at his law office this morning, but told WLBT on Tuesday that although he did not yet have any legislation drafted, it’s something that he’s working on. The next legislative session begins in January 2017, but the comments brought a frenzy of local news stories and responses from high-profile officials.
Bryant told the TV station that he was unaware of the proposal.
“I don’t see any universe in which I would takeover responsibility for the City of Jackson,” he said.
However, Perry, one of the men at the center of the original Facebook conversation, said he would be happy to help Baker with conservatorship language. Perry pointed to Jackson’s current budget morass as evidence that something has to be done to put Jackson back on the right track.
At a special city council meeting on May 9, Jackson council members questioned Yarber administration officials on the status of the city’s reserve fund.
Jackson Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix, who chairs the city’s Legislative Committee, said the city is working through fiscal challenges and questions whether the state, which is facing its own budgetary shortcomings, is any better equipped to turn Jackson around.
“We’ve seen other places, like Flint, where the state’s takeover and involvement has been a dismal failure,” he said referring to the toxic-water crisis in the Michigan city that came after the state’s governor installed an emergency manager. “I think the state needs to pay attention to the issues and challenges that the state is facing.”
Perry, a member of the commission charged with overseeing the use of special sales-tax funds for Jackson infrastructure projects, cites a delay in spending money from the tax fund that voters authorized in January 2014 and the city’s ongoing troubles with managing its water- and sewer-system finances.
“I cannot sit here and tell you any part of the city that’s being run well. We can’t collect water bills. We can’t get people’s bills right. We know people have been stealing water for years. We can’t get contracts approved,” Perry told Mississippi Today.
Shelia Byrd, the communications director for Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, told Mississippi Today: “Although we have not seen any legislation or paperwork, the governor’s position is clear.”