A House panel made changes to a Senate bill to put long-term control of Jackson’s troubled water system under a new “regional” authority, keeping the measure alive after a Tuesday-night deadline.
The changes were an effort to appease a special federal court receiver now overseeing the system and Jackson city and legislative leaders who have decried the regional water authority and other measures as a hostile state takeover of the capital city. The city’s water system, suffering decades of neglected maintenance, has routinely left residents with no potable water or at times no water at all.
“The city of Jackson would retain ownership, this makes that clear,” said Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson, who presented the revised bill to the House Public Utilities Committee late Tuesday. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration, and if passed there would head back to the Senate since the House amended it.
Yates said she and SB2889 original author, Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, met with the federal receiver — who has said he would likely need about five years to true the system — on changes to the bill, some of which were minor tweaks.
The major change is the new authority would possess a “leasehold” on the system’s assets, not ownership as in the original bill. Also, any money obtained by the utility authority beyond what’s needed to operate and maintain the system would be returned to the city.
Yates said she hopes the city and her fellow Jackson legislative delegation will be more open to the measure, but she understands it’s gotten caught up in bitter politics over other “takeover” bills.
“All of them have been balled up into one, ‘We hate it all,'” Yates said. “… But everybody has said there needs to be some governing body other than the city running this system. My goal — I live in Jackson, I work in Jackson, I’m raising a family in Jackson, and I’m representing constituents of Jackson — is that when the third party (federal receiver) is gone, we have something in place, ready to go. I don’t want a year or two to go by with nothing new after they leave and things start to crumble again.”
Public Utilities Chairman Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, said he hopes Jackson legislative delegates can offer amendments to the bill when it comes to the full House “to make it more palatable.”
“Hopefully at the end of the day, we can have something to make sure that in the long run we provide good, safe, clean drinking water for the city of Jackson,” Bounds said. “I think that’s what everybody wants.”
Rep. De’Keither Stamps, D-Jackson, a member of the committee, successfully offered an amendment to the bill Tuesday to require one member of the authority board be a water customer from west-south Jackson, and that a well system in that area be maintained as either a primary or backup water system.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the amended bill.
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, on Wednesday said he had not seen the House-revised bill and, to his knowledge, most others in the Jackson legislative delegation had not been consulted.
That’s part of the problem with the regional authority and other Jackson bills this session, Bell said, lawmakers from elsewhere are trying to take over policing, utilities and other governance without consulting lawmakers representing the city.
“No, that usually doesn’t happen,” Bell said. “I can’t come up here and introduce legislation changing things in the Delta and not talk with people from there … It’s a situation of people from outside of the city thinking they know what’s best for the city. That’s part of the issue here.”
Bell said he generally believes, “Jackson should maintain its water system without any board having control over it.” He said he believes interest in taking it over came after about $800 million in federal money was secured to fix it. He questioned how the system would deal with emergencies under such a regional authority board, which he said would make things cumbersome.
The “Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act” would create a nonprofit authority to control the system that covers Jackson, much of Byram and parts of Ridgeland. The nonprofit board would include four people appointed by the Jackson mayor, three appointed by the governor — one with input from the Byram mayor — and two appointed by the lieutenant governor — one with input from the mayor of Ridgeland. The measure makes clear that neither Byram nor Ridgeland are required to remain in the utility authority.
Some other measures dealing with the city of Jackson faced deadlines for committee action. They include:
House Bill 1168, authored by Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, originally would have forced the city of Jackson to spend all the money collected from a special 1-cent sales tax — usually $14 million to $16 million a year — on its troubled water system. But the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday overhauled the bill, to allow the city to do road, bridge, stormwater, water, sewer or any other infrastructure work, as the program was initially intended. The bill would require more stringent reporting of spending by the commission that runs the 1-cent sales tax work, which Finance Chairman Josh Harkins said has become “lax.” Jackson leaders have for years complained that the state created a special commission to oversee the spending of the 1-cent sales tax, as opposed to giving the city authority to spend it.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, on Tuesday said: “What we are left with now is a … reporting provision … The House passed a bill to take away road paving and put it into the water department, which is about to have $800 million in the bank … This keeps the money where it needs to be used. I’m glad we are going back to paving streets with this. If there’s one thing in Jackson right now that does have money, it’s the water department.”
The measure heads to the full Senate, and if it passes there, back to the House for consideration of the changes.
HB698, authored by Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson, would prohibit a city basing water bills on a customer’s property values, such as the special administrator providing federal oversight of Jackson’s water system has proposed. The measure remains alive and has passed a Senate committee after amendment, meaning if the full Senate passes it it will return to the House. The administrator has said to a judge that he might sue over any state legislation that prevents him from setting water rates based on property values.
HB1094, authored by Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, would fine the capital city up to $1 million for each “improper disposal” of wastewater or sewage into the Pearl River — a fairly common occurrence with Jackson’s crumbling sewerage. The measure died without a vote on Tuesday night’s deadline in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Opponents had said the measure could bankrupt the city with hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, and that the city is already under a federal consent decree to stop polluting the river.
Correction: An initial version of this story had the incorrect number for the regional water authority bill. The correct number is SB2889.