Quick Read

• The problem: Nearly 13% of Mississippians do not have public water service, mostly in rural areas. In some urban areas such as the capital city of Jackson, water and sewerage infrastructure is antiquated and collapsing, affecting thousands more.

• The solution: Mississippi is receiving billions of federal pandemic stimulus dollars that could be used for water and sewer infrastructure — including $1.8 billion going to the state Legislature and $900 million to city and county governments.

• What's next: Mississippi is a poor state, with many needs. State lawmakers and local government officials have through 2024 to prioritize needs and allocate the federal dollars. A special Senate committee will begin meeting in mid-November to help plan state spending. Some local governments are already spending their money.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley meets with residents near the Faulkner community, who are asking for public water service to their homes. Nearly 13% of Mississippi’s population does not have public water service and Presley hopes federal stimulus money can change that. Credit: Amanda Barkley

Running water is a tentative thing for Amanda Barkley’s family and neighbors in more than two dozen homes near the Falkner community on the Benton-Tippah county line.

They’re on wells, many dug decades ago and not deep enough now to tap into good, steady water. In some cases multiple houses are hooked up to one small well. Pressures are low — don’t try showering and washing clothes at the same time. Sometimes, they just go out. Is the water clean? They don’t know; nobody tests it regularly.

Digging new, deeper wells would cost homeowners tens of thousands of dollars each. Provided they could find a company willing to do it, they would spend months on a waiting list as contractors focus on new wells for new homes and businesses. In the meantime, the Barkleys and other families across the state frequently have to replace well pumps, at $1,500 or more a pop.

In March, after a bad storm, Barkley turned her kitchen tap and — no water. It remained out for a month, during which time her kids went through a stomach virus and the family had to bring in water in buckets and wash clothes at her mother’s house nearby.

“We would probably still be without water if we had to dig a new well,” Barkley said. Her husband managed to jury rig a way to get the well pumping again.

Mississippi has a water problem.

It’s been well documented that some urban areas in Mississippi, most notably the capital city of Jackson, have antiquated water and sewerage infrastructure that is collapsing. But families across rural Mississippi — a total of more than 382,000 people or nearly 13% of the state’s population, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service — do not have public water service. In 18 counties, between 20% and 50% of the population is on private wells. Even in more urban Hinds County, that figure tops 10%.

READ MORE: Policy experts explore Jackson water solutions, highlight void in federal aid

It's a hindrance to the state's growth and economic development. And, it's a major health concern: Of Mississippi's private wells that have had their water screened, one in three have coliform bacteria, indicating a risk for water-borne disease. And those on wells also lack sewerage and have to use septic tanks, which pose health and environmental threats. Long, widespread outages and boil-water orders in urban areas such as Jackson also threaten health and economic development.

Mississippi is receiving billions of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. There are rules and red tape, and more regulations are still being developed, but Congress clearly allowed the money going to state and local governments to be spent on water, sewerage and broadband internet.

"This is a no-brainer," said Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. "Water is a basic building block of any community. We have over 380,000 Mississippians not connected to community water. We have other water systems in dire need. For instance in Carthage, there's old asbestos pipes that need to be taken out and replaced. Then, of course, there's Jackson's problems. You can't expect any community in our state to compete if they don't have access to safe water.

"One thing we know for certain, today, clear as a bell in the rules is that these funds can be spent for water, sewer and broadband — basic building blocks of communities that we know are missing in far too many communities in Mississippi. This money is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to use these funds in a way that not only has lasting impact on every county in the state, but also it's a heck of a way to boost the economy with jobs."

Presley has a fear: that local government leaders will try to "get extra cute" with spending ARPA money and "get crafty and contort it into a wish list of pet projects and ignore the basic building blocks." On the state level, he said, the longer planning and allocating the money takes, "every special interest lobbyist there is will have their hands out for their share of this money, and the average citizens get beat down because they can't afford a lobbyist."

"We are burning daylight," Presley said. "The time for planning is now, and we ought to be ashamed if we let these dollars sit there over the next year without a true plan."

READ MORE: Mississippi procrastinates as other states plan for, spend billions in pandemic stimulus

Presley has met with Benton and Tippah county supervisors, and they plan to use ARPA funds to help expand rural water systems to cover the Barkleys' community and other areas. But Presley said that as he's been traveling the state urging local leaders to focus on such projects, too many are pondering more picayune projects and spending. Some small governments also appear ill equipped to navigate red tape, plan and administer the extra spending and projects. Presley is hoping the state or regional planning and development districts can help.

"I've heard some say they're waiting to see if they can use the money to tear down some old building," Presley said. "I've even heard chatter from some that maybe they'd just let the money draw interest, then try to just give it back and keep the interest. That appeared to be maybe just some idle chatter — I hope — but anybody that does that ought not be in public office."

On the state level, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has taken the lead in ARPA planning, and he has shared similar goals and concerns for the spending. He has traveled the state for months meeting with local leaders, urging them to think big and long-term on the spending, to make it "transformational."

Hosemann has also asked local leaders to hold off on spending if possible until the state can help coordinate — and supplement — the local government funds with the state's $1.8 billion in ARPA money. Numerous other states are creating such "matching" state grant funds to help local governments take on larger water, sewer, broadband and other projects.

Hosemann has created a special Senate subcommittee that plans to start meeting in mid-November on ARPA spending and provide recommendations to the Legislature in January. Hosemann said his office has already received numerous project proposals from local governments and rural water associations hoping a state match is in the offing.

"All politics is local, and individual municipalities and counties will make their decisions," Hosemann said. "They're closest to the ground on what they need. But what we're offering them is to perhaps double their money. If they have $1 million and do a water and sewer project, we'll match it. If they use their money for pay raises or something short term — well, that's a decision they'll have to make.

"This is an opportunity for us that we probably will never have again," Hosemann continued. "... How we expend these funds will be the longest legacy that the Legislature has ... We need to focus on things that will have an impact for generations."

But so far, neither House Speaker Philip Gunn nor Gov. Tate Reeves have endorsed Hosemann's proposal for matching funds for city and county projects. Gunn joined Hosemann in asking Reeves to call lawmakers into session to give some ARPA money to hospitals to alleviate a nursing shortage crisis, but has been noncommittal on Hosemann's pitch for the state using up to half its $1.8 billion to match local governments. Gunn said he has his top lieutenants studying how best to spend the money.

Reeves has so far declined to call a special session. While governors in other states have taken a lead in planning or spending ARPA funds — working with lawmakers, creating special task forces and seeking public input — Reeves for months said little about how lawmakers should spend the money. On Monday, as the new Senate committee met, he released an outline of his recommendations for spending ARPA money as par of his annual budget proposal to lawmakers. His proposal includes $100 million earmarked for local water and sewer projects. Lawmakers will have the final say on the spending.

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, chair of the Senate's new ARPA subcommittee, praised Hosemann for moving forward on planning.

"There is plenty of time for the actual allocation of that money," Polk said. "But there are a lot of people out there thinking, hey, I could use some of that $1.8 billion. Until we set the parameters, they are in limbo. It is incumbent upon us to set the parameters, so these folks would know whether they would qualify, and if not they can move on and look for help elsewhere."

House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, has been critical of the legislative leadership not moving faster in planning and spending ARPA funds, such as premium pay for first responders and health workers. He said he's appreciative of Hosemann's efforts to get things moving, and of his proposal to help local governments with the state's share.

But he said a matching money program could mean local governments who are already receiving the most federal aid would also get the most from the state — a disparity for smaller localities with less resources. He said the state should allocate much of its money to local governments, no match required.

“If a local government can establish and verify they have a need, then take the money that we have at the state level and give it to the local governments who have the most need," Johnson said. "The state should just help ... They’re all part of the fabric and lifeblood of this state.”

Residents listen to Presley speak about the need for community water. (Submission: Amanda Barkley)

Mississippi lawmakers have a history of "Christmas Tree" spending — divvying up bond proceeds, federal disaster aid or other money via politics, lobbying and geography instead of looking for the biggest bang for the buck or the most pressing needs.

The state also has a history of its leaders fighting over how to spend federal stimulus, disaster aid and other money. After Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil disaster, and the Great Recession there were state and provincial squabbles over spending. With an earlier round of federal COVID-19 relief money, Reeves and lawmakers had a bitter political battle over control of the spending, with the Legislature winning out. Reeves warned "people will die" from lawmakers controlling the spending and claimed the Legislature "stole" the money.

The state also has a history — much of it recent — for misspending federal and other dollars through corruption, malfeasance or ineptitude, both on the state and local levels.

State Auditor Shad White said his office is working on the front end with Mississippi governments to make sure the latter doesn't happen, and that local governments aren't faced with repaying the federal windfall down the line.

White said his office is fielding numerous questions from local governments — they or residents can call 800-321-1275 with ARPA spending questions — and he's glad they're asking questions before spending the money. He said, "I practically yell that phone number into the microphone" when speaking with local governments and groups.

"We are getting everything from, hey, we want to beef up our water system in this way, all the way to ideas that are not contemplated in the law, or probably allowed," White said. "We get some like, what we really need in town is a brand new soccer field, can we do that? Our advice is usually no. Some are asking how to stretch the definition of what is lost revenue from the pandemic so they can spend it however they want.

"Yes, claiming lost revenue does provide a lot more flexibility, but not a lot of local governments in Mississippi had a lot of lost revenue — especially when you look at the (internet sales) use tax diversion to local governments kicking in during this time," White said. "Local governments I think are mostly trying to find the most effective use of the money that doesn't require a heavy lift on calculations or documentation. If you're staring at a water and sewer problem in your town, I think a lot of them are just figuring, let's spend it to fix that."

Some other states' governments are using the lost revenue provision to shift money to road and bridge projects, which are not otherwise clearly allowed with ARPA funds. Some Mississippi local government leaders have said their greatest needs are in road and bridge work, not water, sewerage and broadband. A bill pending in Congress would change the ARPA regs to easily allow road and bridge work.

White said he's already working with Hosemann's new Senate subcommittee as well as local governments to make sure the money is spent properly.

"The last thing we want is this money going out the door very quickly, then the Office of Inspector General coming back three years later and having to claw this money back out of local and state governments," White said. "That's a black eye for the state ... and it could be disastrous for a town or county to have to pay that money back, maybe when finances aren't so good later on."

State and local governments received half of their ARPA allotments over the summer and will receive the other half in the summer of 2022. They have until the end of 2024 to allocate the money and the end of 2026 to have it totally spent. This is a more generous deadline than previous federal pandemic relief, but planning and completing infrastructure projects and setting up administration of the money can take a long time.

On the state level, Mississippi appears to be behind most states in planning for and spending ARPA funds.

Hosemann and White said they were unsure how many local governments have already begun spending their money.

Recently, Hinds County supervisors approved spending $3 million of the $45 million the county is receiving to provide premium pay bonuses of $2,000 to $4,000 each to 900 county employees who worked during the pandemic. Lee County is trying to figure out if it would be allowed spend some of its $16 million on a new jail.

But Derrick Surrette, director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said he believes many counties are waiting until the U.S. Treasury issues its final rules on the spending, expected any time now before the end of the year.

Shari Veazey, director of the Mississippi Municipal League, said, "We've encouraged our cities to take it slow and not in haste, with Treasury issuing rolling guidances ... Some of the larger cities that have more staff and lawyers and engineers feel confident in moving foward, but I think most are moving slow and waiting to see what happens with the state based on conversations with the lieutenant governor."

Both Surrette and Veazey said local governments would welcome any matching fund programs from the state or help with administration. Other states, such as Tennessee, are providing administrative or training assistance to local governments for ARPA spending.

The city of Starkville wasted no time, and allocated most of its $6.4 million in ARPA funds in late September. It spent the bulk of its money on city parks.

The Board of Aldermen voted to spend $3.5 million refurbishing its seven city parks, and $2 million to build two ballfields at its 12-field Cornerstone Sportsplex tournament facility expected to open next year. Aldermen also voted to spend $500,000 to hire two new police officers through 2024 (the city will have to cover the tab after that).

Aldermen only earmarked $200,000 for infrastructure — to upgrade a troubled water system serving a large neighborhood in Starkville. The tab for the repairs is estimated at $350,000, so the city would have to find other funds for it, perhaps state matching funds if the Legislature approves that.

According to the Commercial Dispatch newspaper, the spending raised criticism or questions from residents and at least one alderman who thought other projects — like the water project, helping struggling businesses and people who were evicted from their homes amid the pandemic and other needs — should take precedent over parks with the ARPA spending.

But Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said the city's ARPA spending decisions will "impact the most people and be transformative." She said the city will take care of the neighborhood's water problems regardless of ARPA money and Starkville's parks have needed refurbishing for decades.

She said the city attorney researched ARPA rules and, "We feel pretty confident that we are on firm footing ... did our due diligence." She said the city's parks are in well-defined socioeconomically deprived areas that suffered from the pandemic. She said ARPA rules allow spending for tourism, and the sportsplex ballfields qualify.

She said she understands the push for the focus on infrastructure projects, but that Starkville has "already checked those boxes" in its normal course of business.

"A municipality is a lot different than a county in needs of water, sewer and broadband," Spruill said. "I don't want the city of Starkville penalized because we have already stepped up and got our plans in place for water and sewer and already have broadband service ... These parks will be transformative — they've not been touched, or not redesigned or reconfigured, in the last 30 to 50 years."

Spruill said she still hopes for a state match for some of Starkville's spending and is "working on a white paper to support our use of those funds with all those facts at our command on how these are transformative and meet the goals."

"The state's got more money than it knows what to do with," Spruill said. "I think it's up to the municipalities and counties to help them with those decisions."

Meanwhile, Barkley and her neighbors, who have organized and met with county leaders, and nearby water associations, hope the ARPA windfall will soon provide them with water service. She said one neighbor is recovering from cancer, and they're terrified his well may go out soon.

Barkley notes, with some irony, that her area has broadband internet service thanks to the state's efforts — led largely by Presley — which included state spending from an earlier round of federal COVID-19 relief.

"It's great, and I commend them," Barkley said. "We love it, and we've had broadband for almost a year now. But it's kind of hard to enjoy that fast internet if you don't have any water. We need help."

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.