The state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would place the long-term control of Jackson’s water, wastewater and storm water systems under a nonprofit-led regional authority.
Under Senate Bill 2889, the majority of the board leading the nonprofit would be appointed by state leaders: three members from the governor, two from the lieutenant governor, and four from Jackson’s mayor. The board would then appoint a president of the authority, who would take charge of daily tasks and hiring personnel.
The new structure would take effect once the city’s federally appointed water manager, Ted Henifin, is no longer in his role. The federal judge who appointed Henifin left the timeline for that transition open-ended, only requiring Henifin to remain in Jackson until the city can maintain the water system on its own. Henifin suggested recently he would need at least five years to complete his duties.
The bill’s author, Sen. David Parker, a Republican who lives about 200 miles north of Jackson in Olive Branch, said that while the city’s water troubles have been a “black eye for Jackson, it’s also been a problem for the state as a whole.”
Despite the proposed structure in the bill, Parker refused to characterize the bill as taking control of the water system away from Jackson.
Citing the bill, Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, read, “‘The utility authority shall assume ownership, management, and control’ … so this is a taking, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I don’t consider it a taking,” Parker responded.
“Then what would you call it?” Horhn asked.
“I would say it’s a change of the structure to allow governance to move in a more people-friendly direction for generations to come,” Sen. Parker said.
“Who owns the asset right now?” Horhn asked.
“The city of Jackson owns (it),” Parker responded.
“And who will own the asset if this bill becomes law?” Horhn asked.
“The regional utility authority shall own the assets,” Parker said.
“It’s a taking,” Horhn responded, “It’s the same principle that we debated seven or eight years ago with the Jackson airport.”
As part of the changes he recently made to the bill, Parker said he combined his initial idea of a regional authority with the idea of a corporate nonprofit, which Henifin had raised in his recently submitted financial plan for the water system. The senator admitted, though, that he hasn’t yet discussed the bill with Henifin.
Henifin’s responsibility includes recommending a future governance structure for the water system. In his financial plan, Henifin didn’t propose any single option, but listed a nonprofit as the only option without any potential downsides. A key difference between his idea and SB 2889, though, is that Jackson wouldn’t lose ownership of the assets included in the drinking water system in Henifin’s proposal.
He wrote that keeping the system in the city’s control would mean limitations with procuring contracts, as well as a potential shift in priorities after each election.
The new version of SB 2889 also removed the requirement that the Jackson mayor would have to consult with the mayors of neighboring cities, Byram and Ridgeland, for two of his appointments, and shifted that requirement to the governor and lieutenant governor’s appointments. Jackson sends drinking water to Byram, and also handles some of Ridgeland’s wastewater.
The Senate approved the bill, 34-15, and the legislation now moves to the House. Senators also amended the bill with a reverse repealer, meaning that is has to come back through their chamber before going to the governor’s desk for final approval.
Horhn warned that lawmakers should consider what it would mean to take on the legal liability for the city’s water and wastewater systems, both of which are under federal consent orders. The city is also facing multiple civil lawsuits over drinking water issues. He said that lawmakers considered placing Jackson’s water under a regional authority last year, but backed away for that very reason.
“I wonder if we would even be here right now if the federal government didn’t give us $800 million,” Horhn said, referencing a recent historic investment of federal funds into Jackson’s water system.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba last week criticized SB 2889 and other pending bills that would interfere with the city’s water and judicial systems.
Reporter Geoff Pender contributed to this story.