JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – A bill that would take control of the water, sewer and storm water systems away from the city of Jackson has cleared the Senate.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed S.B. 2889, which would create the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority, and transfer ownership of the city’s water and wastewater assets to it.
The bill was approved on a 34-15 vote, with most members of the Jackson delegation voting against it.
However, the final version of the bill still must be hammered out, with its author agreeing to add a reverse repealer clause to it.
The clause, if left in place, would repeal the law the day before it is slated to go into effect, meaning that lawmakers will likely return to the table to hammer out the bill’s details.
Even with that amendment, District 26 Sen. John Horhn gave an impassioned plea urging his colleagues to vote down the measure.
He invoked the state’s racist past, as well as lawmakers’ previous approval of a bill to take over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.
“It’s the same principle that we debated seven or eight years ago,” he said. “Control of the airport was wrested away from the city of Jackson and given to somebody else.”
“This is a taking, ladies and gentlemen. It’s going to prompt a whole bunch of lawsuits.”
Years ago, the legislature approved a bill doing away with Jackson’s airport authority and replacing it with a new group to manage the airport and Hawkins Field. The city is fighting that effort in federal court, and the case is currently on appeal with the U.S. Fifth Circuit.
S.B. 2889, meanwhile, would create a nine-member utility authority to not only manage but own the city’s water system. The authority, in turn, would appoint a president to oversee day-to-day operations.
Under the measure, the utility authority would have the ability to set and raise water/sewer rates, issue bonds and make infrastructure improvements as it sees fit.
It would take over after the receiver leaves the city but would be set up shortly after the bill passed, with the legislation mandating a utility president to be appointed by January 1, 2024.
Takeover of the city’s infrastructure aside, one provision in the proposal sparking debate among lawmakers is the bill’s provision allowing the authority to take control of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds allocated to shore up the city’s water system.
The bill states that the authority would be able to “apply, contract for, accept, receive and administer gifts, grants, appropriations and donations of money, materials and property of any kind, including loans and grants from the United States… upon any terms and conditions as the United States… shall impose.”
Translated, the authority would gain control of any of the remaining $800 million or so in federal funds recently allocated to fix the city’s water system, once it takes control of the system.
Sen. David Parker, the bill’s author, says the bill is not about taking control of the city’s federal allocations (He says he began working on the measure last summer.) but ensuring people in the capital city have access to clean drinking water.
However, Parker’s initial comments Tuesday appeared less about that and more about shoring up the state’s image in the national spotlight.
“When the water is out and you can’t flush your toilet and you can’t brush your teeth, your life changes,” he said. “And that type of instance makes local news. It makes state news, and, in this instance, it made, of course national news.”
Parker was referring to the August/September water crisis, when equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of customers without water for days.
The story made national and international headlines, with media outlets from across the globe descending on the city.
“When we have a water crisis here, it impacts the film industry and impacts economic development, and impacts people who are considering expanding or bringing a business into the state,” he said. “Again, this is a problem that has affected the entire state.”
Some members of the Jackson delegation questioned Parker on why they were not consulted in crafting the legislation.
Sen. Hillman Frazier said the measure sets a bad precedent. “It’s not a problem today. But it may be your problem tomorrow,” he said. “It’s my resources today, it might be yours tomorrow. It might be Jackson today, but it might be Tupelo tomorrow. It might be Jackson today but may be Southaven tomorrow.”
Members of the city’s delegation also scrutinized Parker’s claims that the city’s third-party administrator, Ted Henifin, backed the idea.
Henifin was tapped to take over the city’s water system and water billing system as part of a federal court order approved in November.
The legislation states that the receiver “has communicated to the public the importance of creating a utility district separate and distinct from the city of Jackson to assume ownership, management and control over the water system currently owned by the city… after the receiver’s work concludes in the next two years.”
Parker, who told Senate colleagues that he has not yet met with Henifin, also pointed to a “20-plus-page document” as proof of Henifin’s support for the idea.
The document Parker was referring to is the financial plan Henifin released late last month. It spells out how the city can finance its short, medium and long-term water needs over the next 20 years. It also discusses multiple options to run the water system once the receivership ends, including creating a regional and/or a local authority. However, neither idea is endorsed.
“It’s interesting that people were taking my written word and twisting it around a little bit and using it to support the direction that they want to see something go,” Henifin said.
For his part, Henifin says the ratepayers should be consulted before any change in water system governance is made. “I think we need a community process to determine what ultimately happens,” he asaid. “I just don’t get the rush to dictate a solution before having any community input. That’s where I’m at.”
Parker will have his first meeting with Henifin on February 13.
Like Henifin, Horhn also questioned Parker’s rush to push through the bill, saying the third-party manager has only been in place since late November, and that he needs time to do his job.
“He’s been given the authority to come up with a fix and all of a sudden we have a road map to a fix, and then… the state of Mississippi decides it’s going to get involved,” Horhn said. “Still not talking about putting any state money in, even though we have right at $4 billion in unobligated state money.”
Horhn said during a budget committee meeting last fall, he offered an amendment to set aside either $50 million or $150 million to help the city of Jackson with its water needs, and the proposal died for a lack of a second.
“If we are truly concerned about Jackson, then we should be able to sit down and compromise and have a dialogue… and come up with a solution that everybody can live with,” Horhn said. “We can’t live with this. We’re telling you we can’t live with it, and it looks like you’re going to do it anyway.”
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