Western view of City Hall located in downtown Jackson. A statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States can be seen in the foreground, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Members of Jackson’s legislative delegation say that — fairly or unfairly — the city suffers from an image problem that makes it hard to secure state money from the Legislature for the city’s crumbling infrastructure and other problems.

Despite the state having unprecedented billions in extra federal and state dollars to cover infrastructure needs, the city wasn’t able to secure the money it had hoped for, particularly for its troubled water and sewerage system. And, of the $25 million state match the city’s delegation expects Jackson to receive, it will be subject to strict state oversight. No other local government in the state will undergo similar state oversight.

“There’s a myriad of reasons for our doing that,” Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said of the state oversight. “The city has not in recent years engendered a whole lot of trust as far as the state’s concerns of (Jackson’s) capacity to perform efficiently, expeditiously some of these repairs.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the city’s delegation was told up front by legislative leadership that special state Department of Finance and Administration oversight was a requirement for Jackson water and sewerage funding, and the delegation pragmatically accepted it.

“We were told that was going to be a requirement and our goal was to get the money,” Blount said. “There have been problems at the Jackson water department, I think we all know that, but it was a requirement and we were not going to walk away empty handed.”

There is a perception with legislative leaders and lawmakers from elsewhere in the state that Jackson needs more oversight in part because of local government in-fighting, such as the nasty ongoing battle between Jackson’s mayor and city council over a garbage collection contract, and because of long-running city problems such as crime.

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said there has been oversight placed on Jackson’s funding in the past, predating the current city administration. In 2009, the Legislature granted the city the authority to levy a 1-cent sales tax to fund primarily road and bridge improvements. But in doing so, it created a special commission to oversee spending the money. Bell said it was not fair then and it is not fair now.

“It has been a common practice for the city of Jackson to receive extra scrutiny when it comes to the allocation of funds,” Bell said. “Is it right? No. However, it’s incumbent on the city and delegation to stress the importance of working together and not continuing to keep such standards in place. It’s also important for the city to utilize our resources on the federal level. Our local lobbying efforts have to increase and be more effective on the state level. State and local leaders need to stop playing the pointing game and get to the business of helping the residents of Jackson.”

READ MORE: Mayor Lumumba: ‘Paternalistic, racist’ Legislature failed to help Jackson despite having extra billions

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called the questioning of Jackson’s leadership and management “myths” that legislative leaders use to justify not giving the city the support it needs. He said many of the issues facing the city have been decades in the making. He also said that racism plays a role in the majority-white Legislature’s views toward majority-Black Jackson.

“I would ask them to call out what those leadership problems are, you know?” Lumumba said. “Disagreement with what our principles are isn’t a leadership problem. That is a disagreement. There isn’t a right to lord over Jackson and make decisions for the city. You have a responsibility to the residents of Jackson just like you have a responsibility to all the residents of the state of Mississippi.”

Lumumba also said there’s “hypocrisy” in state government — which has been rocked by scandals of fraud, bribery, embezzlement and malfeasance — to say Jackson can’t manage resources and projects.

“I’ve not misappropriated funds, right?” Lumumba said. “I’ve not given money to a pet project of mine over the interests of Jackson residents. We have merely been chipping away at how we resolve the challenges that our city has … What there is is a resolve (by legislators) not to provide resources to Jackson.

Lumumba said that given Jackson’s dire infrastructure needs, and it being the state’s largest and capital city, the state should have given the city some direct allocations separate from the matching grant program for cities and counties statewide.

Lumumba said he knows the city’s legislative delegation was “inspired to go with something, versus not getting anything at all.”

When pressed during a lengthy interview with Mississippi Today on why he thought Jackson was treated differently, the mayor said, “It’s racist.”

“And there are going to be people who don’t like that I say that,” Lumumba said. “But if they really have heartburn about it, prove me wrong. I dare you. I dare you to prove me wrong.”

Rep. Shonda Yates, I-Jackson, said she was seeking compromise when she authored the bill establishing state oversight. The goal, she said, was to establish a program where the Legislature would provide designated funding with state oversight to deal with Jackson’s water woes. The bill she authored would have put $43 million into a fund with state oversight.

But what came out of the legislative process was the establishment of a fund, but no direct funding for Jackson. Instead, a program was established where federal American Rescue Plan funds that the state received could be accessed by municipalities for water and sewer need if they provided a dollar-for-dollar match from separate federal ARPA funds they received.

The city of Jackson plans to allocate $25 million or about 60% of its ARPA funds to draw down the state match.

And those funds will be only a drop in the bucket of what the city needs. It has been estimated that fixing Jackson’s water and sewer problems could cost as much as $2 billion. Those problems include concerns from federal officials about the safety of Jackson’s water.

Yates said she hopes additional state funding for Jackson’s water and sewer issues can be provided over the coming years.

“I certainly plan to advocate for such,” she said.

“We are going to be coming back next year, and there is ARPA money remaining,” Blount said. “There is only so much that can be spent, only so much work that can be done (by the city) in the next nine months, and the state has ARPA money remaining, so we will be back again because the capital city has got to have a functioning water system.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

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.