House Speaker Philip Gunn met with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Friday to discuss several legislative proposals that would send the city of Jackson state funding to repair its aged and failing water and sewage system.
Meanwhile, a feud between the mayor and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann came to light this week, raising questions about whether Hosemann, a Jackson resident who has heavy influence over the state’s purse strings, is willing to provide state support to the city. Hosemann did not meet with city officials this week.
A historic winter storm in mid-February froze water plant equipment and burst many pipes, and at least 40,000 Jackson residents — mostly Black — were without water for nearly three weeks. Today, about 5,000 Jackson residents are still without water. City leaders say they need major investment from state leaders to replace its entire water and sewage system, which is estimated to cost about $2 billion.
Gunn met with Lumumba and Charles Williams, the city’s public works director, in the speaker’s office on Friday morning to discuss the crisis. The city of Jackson’s entire House delegation — seven state representatives — also sat in the meeting. The mayor made two main asks of the speaker, several meeting attendees told Mississippi Today:
• Support the Jackson city council’s recently approved 1-cent sales tax increase proposal, which requires legislative approval. The tax increase, implemented only within the city of Jackson, would generate about $14 million per year — nowhere close to the $2 billion needed to completely replace the city’s water and sewer system. But Lumumba told Gunn that new annual revenue, if lawmakers sign off and Jackson voters approve this summer, would be used to back large municipal bonds that would help the city make substantial repairs on the system in the short-term.
• Pass a state bond package totaling $47 million that would give the city immediate funding to begin necessary repairs on its water and sewer system. Lawmakers send cities and counties millions nearly every year in a large bond package, and city officials say they’ve been shorted in recent years by the Legislature. On March 3, Lumumba sent a letter to state and federal officials laying out the need for that $47 million emergency appropriation.
Gunn, a resident of the suburb Clinton, listened intently to the mayor, and several of the meeting’s attendees said the speaker seemed sympathetic to the city’s position. Gunn asked several questions of Lumumba and Williams. No promises were made, the meeting’s attendees said, but they all expressed optimism that future talks between the speaker and mayor would continue as the 2021 legislative session continues.
On Saturday, Jackson’s public works director, Charles Williams, acknowledged that even if it’s approved, the $47 million in bonds will not be nearly enough to protect Jackson’s water system from the kind of large-scale service disruptions seen over the past few weeks.
“This ask will help. It will get us started. But, it will not solve our overall infrastructure problems for the long term,” Williams told Mississippi Today. “We have a plant and we have a distribution system. Over the years, there have been many plans and studies for both, but we have not had the funding for implementation. You cannot fund what you don’t have.”
Meanwhile, details of tension between Hosemann and Lumumba — long whispered about in the halls of the Capitol — came to light Thursday night during a mayoral debate ahead of 2021 municipal elections. At the heart of the tiff between the lieutenant governor and mayor is control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, which state leaders have tried for years to wrest from the city.
“I sat down with the lieutenant governor to talk about Jackson’s infrastructure problem,” Lumumba said during the Thursday night debate, referencing a meeting that occurred before the current crisis. “We had a conversation that lasted for about an hour and a half, and he asked everyone to leave the room only to say, ‘Mayor, I need you to give me my airport, and I look at it for about $30 million.’”
Lumumba continued: “Not only am I supposed to be dumb, I’m also supposed to be cheap.”
In 2016, lawmakers approved a bill to take over the airport and replace the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority with a regional board made up of state, county, and city appointees.
That law, however, has not gone into effect after the city joined a federal lawsuit to block the takeover. That lawsuit has continued, and city officials have said the state’s motives were race-based. Currently, the city controls the airport with its own board. All board members are African American. The lawmakers who pushed and passed the 2016 legislation are white.
Many hoped Hosemann, the most powerful Jackson resident at the Capitol, would be open to helping solve the city’s water crisis. Lumumba and Hosemann did not have contact this week, nor did their staffs. But the mayor sent Hosemann the letter requesting $47 million in emergency appropriations.
The only public comments Hosemann has made about the water crisis came on Monday, when he was asked at a press event if the state should offer financial support to the city to solve its infrastructure problems.
“If you remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer,” Hosemann responded, referring to the last white Jackson mayor who left office in 1997. “So what’s happened since then? The prime mover (of solving the problem) needs to be the city itself. Those people have to come up with a reasonable plan to get their water bills out on time.”
That comment has been sharply criticized by current and former city officials, with some calling Hosemann’s comment racist and a continuation of state leaders’ attitude toward Jackson and its officials.
READ MORE: As Jackson residents suffer during historic water crisis, state leaders keep their distance
Jackson, the state’s largest city, is at least 80% Black. Statewide elected officials are white; the state of Mississippi has never elected a Black statewide official by popular vote, and legislative leaders who control the state’s budget are white. Most of the city’s white residents like Hosemann, because of more recent infrastructure upgrades in northeast Jackson and their proximity to water treatment plants, rarely experience long-term outages.
Meanwhile, residents in south and west Jackson, majority-Black areas of the city, take the brunt of the city’s infrastructure failings. And because of careful legislative gerrymandering and segregated politics, Black elected officials at the Capitol have little influence over the budget process or other major policy negotiations.
Talks between city leaders and state leaders regarding the water crisis are expected to continue between now and April 4, the scheduled end of the 2021 legislative session. At least one piece of legislation that would award state bonds to the city for its water system is expected to be filed in the House next week.