The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant remains active in Ridgeland, Mississippi on September 1, 2022. (Rory Doyle/Deep Indigo Collective for Mississippi Today)

A complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center asks the U.S. Department of Treasury to investigate alleged discriminatory funding of water infrastructure in Jackson through the state’s distribution of federal relief funds. 

“Residents and business owners are paying a costly price for the gross negligence of state leadership,” SPLC Mississippi state director Waikinya Clanton said in a Friday statement announcing the May 2 complaint. 

“Jackson is a majority Black city, where some of the most vulnerable and most severely impacted communities live,” she said.  “This situation deserves a thorough look into the improper, discriminatory and negligent actions of the state.”? 

The complaint is on behalf of city residents and is against the state and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Through its allocation of American Rescue Plan Act money, the state and department allegedly violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Treasury Department regulations that prohibit recipients of federal funding from discriminating based on race. 

Last year the state Legislature voted to allow cities to apply to a water infrastructure grant program worth $435 million. Municipalities including Jackson could receive a one-to-one match using their own ARPA funds, but smaller municipalities that received less than $1 million in ARPA money could request a two-to-one match. 

The matching disparately impacts poor, Black residents in Jackson because the city can’t request more money than it can match, according to the complaint. The state has calculated how much assistance it can provide based primarily on what municipalities can offer themselves rather than the amount they need, according to the SPLC. 

Jackson applied for a $23 million match for its drinking water system, which would give it $46 million in total. For wastewater, the city requested a $12 million match for a $24 million total. 

City leaders have repeatedly told the state it is unable to pay for the $2 billion in estimated repairs for its water system, said Crystal McElrath, SPLC’s senior supervising attorney. 

?”Jackson is a city in great need, and?we cannot ignore that this match system?is designed to limit the amount of funds the City can request,” she said in a statement. 

In addition to a Treasury Department investigation, SPLC asks for the following:

  • Distribute Jackson’s requested water and sewer grant money directly and immediately to the city without additional oversight requirements
  • Let Jackson seek additional funding from the water and sewer grant program
  • Provide access to American Rescue Plan Act funds without a matching requirement for Jackson and other communities with financial need

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.