Inside the College Hill Baptist Church in West Jackson, in front of a tall, blue backlit cross, the city’s town hall to discuss its unceasing water woes Tuesday night began with a prayer.
“We thank you now Lord that we have assembled in this place, to discuss issues within this city, particularly our water,” said Louis Wright, the city’s chief administrative officer. “Continue to uplift the mayor as he looks out for the citizens of this community. We pray that Lord you will give us the blessings and the wherewithal that we need in order to overcome the issues that we’re going through.”
On the 47th consecutive day of a state-imposed citywide boil water notice, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba went into great detail Tuesday night to discuss the logistics of Jackson’s road ahead. During the three-hour meeting, Lumumba talked through bullet points listed on a placard in front of the altar.
Starting on a more personal note than usual for his recent public appearances, the mayor talked about moving to Jackson with his family at the age of five in 1988. The next year, Lumumba saw the fragility of the city’s infrastructure, he recalled, after some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Jackson shut down the water system.
“This is something that has unfortunately become a way of life in Jackson,” he said. Later, he asked the tired faces scattered in the pews in front of him, “How beautiful would it be, for us to say, regardless of party, that we were able to solve this problem in our lifetime?”
Lumumba, along with his chief financial officer, Fidelis Malembeka, pushed back against recent news stories questioning how prepared the city leadership is to tackle the current crisis. Specifically, they defended against the idea that the city lacks a plan, or that it doesn’t truly know how much it would cost to fix the water system.
The mayor said he feels it’s unfair for state and federal officials to criticize Jackson for not having a full plan when, after he’s shared what planning the city does have, those same officials offer no feedback.
“There is little to no communication around, ‘Well your plan is lacking this,’” Lumumba said. “When it comes down to it and there’s no funding, it’s later said, ‘You have no plan.’ The reality is that not only this administration, but every administration in the recent history of the city of Jackson has had some type of plan.
“There’s a difference between not having a plan and not having mutual priority over its funding.”
Pointing to the existence of a “very detailed plan” the city has shared with the Environmental Protection Agency, Malembeka echoed a clarification Lumumba made just earlier this week, which is that the plan is hidden behind a court-ordered confidentiality agreement.
“I want everyone to understand that the city does have a plan,” he said. “Right now we have restrictions because of the confidentiality agreement that’s in place. That’s a very detailed plan, and once we’re able to share it you will see.”
Mississippi Today could not confirm with the EPA the existence of the non-disclosure agreement by the publish date of this story. Earlier this year, WLBT reported that neither the city nor the EPA could disclose a report that informed increases in Jackson’s sewer and water bill rates, although it’s unclear if that is due to the same confidentiality agreement.
Lumumba, on multiple occasions, estimated that fully repairing the drinking water system would cost a billion dollars, although none of the spending proposals the city has released total more than $80 million.
“Someone will say, you have a billion dollar need, but you’re only showing us $80 million,” Malembeka. “Let’s get to the $80 million first. You can’t get to the billion dollars without getting through $80 million.”
As for reaching that goal, he added that earlier on Tuesday the Jackson City Council approved the next year’s budget that includes $30.8 million for sewer repairs and $30 million for water infrastructure. The council also adopted a plan to spend $34 million of Jackson’s $42 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds on water and sewer, which the state will match on a dollar for dollar basis, Malembeka said.
Lumumba then addressed reports that state lawmakers are discussing a number of pathways that could take Jackson’s water system out of the city’s hands, such as privatization and regionalization.
“The problem with privatization is that companies aren’t taking over your system in order to be benevolent, they’re not taking over your system just because they want to come help,” the mayor said. “They want to extract a profit from you.”
Policy experts who spoke to Mississippi Today confirmed Lumumba’s concern that private water systems often raise water bill rates, but added that those systems also have less violations of safe drinking laws. Moreover, any rate increases would have to be approved by the state Public Service Commission.
Regionalization, or combining nearby cities’ water systems, can create “economies of scale,” lowering costs for a financially struggling city like Jackson, those experts said. But the mayor called it a “problematic solution,” questioning whether it would really lower costs for Jackson and how the needs among the different cities would be prioritized.
After an hour-long, extensive presentation from the two city bureaucrats on Jackson’s financial outlook, officials opened the floor to questions and comments from residents.
Ronald Gilbert talked about his time working as an operations supervisor at the O.B. Curtis treatment plant for five years. Gilbert was critical of the city’s hiring and recruiting process for plant workers.
“We weren’t hiring the right people in (1995), we weren’t hiring the right people in 2005, and now you’re going to farm it out to other states,” he said, referencing recent support from other states to bring O.B. Curtis back online as part of a mutual aid agreement.
Gilbert added that when he left his job in 2005 to work in Georgia, he doubled his salary “as a grunt.”
One woman, Evelyn Ford, talked about her challenges picking up water at one of the distribution sites. Ford had gone to get water for other homes, and said that after being told there was a limit on how much water she could get, a state trooper stopped her and asked for her license. The trooper called her “disrespectful,” she said, and later asked her to leave.
“I might be able to get the water, but I felt humiliated,” Ford said. “We’re already having a hard enough time as it is asking for water from someone else, now you’re telling me you’re going to restrict me.”
Residents vented on issues outside of just water, discussing crime, economic development, roads, and creeks overflowing with sewage.
Lumumba, summarizing the sentiment he’s shared at press conferences for the last two years asking for outside help with the city’s water system, responded to the speakers bluntly: “You have a city where our needs exceed our ability to pay for them.”