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The city of Jackson’s request for $47 million from the state for water and sewerage repairs has fallen on deaf ears as lawmakers ink final spending plans for the coming year with only $3 million of $356 million in projects statewide earmarked for a city water plant.
But legislative leaders said they’re not ignoring the capital city’s water crisis. They said tens of millions in federal dollars coming to Mississippi from the COVID-19 American Rescue Act can go to overhauling Jackson’s crumbling infrastructure. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said the $3 million for the Jackson water plant is one of the largest individual city projects funded by the state for the coming year.
Lawmakers have approved a $298 million “Christmas tree” bond bill to borrow money for dozens of projects and economic development grants statewide, including $121 million for colleges and universities projects. They also approved $58 million in projects from the state capital expense fund. Besides the $3 million water project, there are about $1.6 million in smaller city of Jackson projects, such as $500,000 to upgrade the Pete Brown Golf Course.
After decades of neglected maintenance, Jackson’s water system is failing as the city struggles financially, largely from “white flight” loss of population and businesses to the suburbs. A recent freezing winter storm left at least 40,000 Jacksonians without running water for weeks, and the system suffers outages and boil-water notices frequently. The city is asking for state and federal help and said $1 billion in repairs are needed.
Recently, lawmakers killed a request to let Jackson voters decide whether to levy a 1-cent local sales tax in Jackson to pay for water and sewerage. Jackson already has a 1-cent local sales tax — one of only two such local sales taxes in the state — for infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, our requests have fallen on deaf ears with regard to our quality of water issues,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “The $3 million currently allocated to the J.H. Fewell water plant … is a small deposit on the future improvements of our water treatment plant.”
Another lawmaker from Jackson, Sen. John Horhn, said he believes Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s recent public criticism of the state’s GOP leadership played a role in the city not receiving more from the state. Horhn unsuccessfully challenged Lumumba for the mayor’s seat in the 2017 Democratic city primary.
“We have an unfortunate set of circumstances where the mayor made comments that state leaders took exception to,” Horhn said. “That impacted the reception to the requests.”
Lumumba said in a New York Times interview that state government agencies and offices don’t pay for city water and sewerage, which helps put the system in a financial bind. He later retracted the statement, saying he had incorrect information and that state offices do pay for the city services.
Hosemann, a longtime Jackson resident, said the mayor’s criticism of state leaders hasn’t influenced his decision-making on city requests. But then he criticized the mayor’s comments.
“I wish he’d be accurate — the state pays its water bills,” Hosemann said. “I don’t know why he’d run down the state he lives in to the New York Times, especially when it’s not true … But his inaccurate comments did not affect funding, not with me. I live here.”
Hosemann said lawmakers considered the Fewell Plant (one of two main water plants in the city) repairs an urgent need the state could help fund directly. He said otherwise, Jackson’s water issues can be addressed with some of the $6 billion in federal Rescue Act funding Mississippi will receive.
“We’ve got $1.8 billion in federal funds coming to (the Legislature) that should be here within 120 to 180 days that can help,” Hosemann said. “… Also, the city can apply for grants from another $166 million coming for infrastructure projects … There’s $44 million coming directly to the city — the largest amount for any city in the state — and there’s another $46 million going to (Hinds) county.
“What this means is that we just need to all work together over the next three to four months and make sure things are taken care of,” Hosemann said. “… We were more generous with Jackson than anybody else (with project funding) even knowing they’ve got more coming to them (from the Rescue Act) than anybody else.”
House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, said, “No. 1, we want to help the city of Jackson. It’s as simple as that.”
Lamar said city officials and legislative leaders have been meeting and he agrees with Hosemann and others that the “unprecedented” federal funding coming to the state, city and county can solve the issues. He said the state’s congressional delegation is also working on more direct help for Jackson.
“It would make no sense for the state to borrow a bunch of money at this time for water and sewer when the city, county and state are about to get money that can be used for this,” Lamar said. “… I do believe help is on the horizon. We all want to see the city do well and we will help on the state level where we can.”