As Jackson residents suffer during historic water crisis, state leaders keep their distance

Published 9:00 am Friday, March 5, 2021

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is one of the most powerful residents of Jackson, where about 40,000 of his neighbors — mostly Black — are in their third week without running water after a historic winter storm froze plant equipment and burst many water pipes.

The ongoing water crisis is the result of decades of inaction from city leaders, who put off routine maintenance and meaningful infrastructure repairs as the city’s tax base and revenue collections diminished. Current and former city leaders, having dealt for decades with aging and brittle pipes, say they need investment from the state and federal government.

Many are placing their hope for financial support from the state with Hosemann, who lives in northeast Jackson and wields significant control of the state’s purse strings. He was asked this week about whether the state should step in and help.

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“If you remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer,” Hosemann responded, referring to the last white Jackson mayor who left office in 1997. “So what’s happened since then? The prime mover (of solving the problem) needs to be the city itself. Those people have to come up with a reasonable plan to get their water bills out on time.”

Hosemann continued: “Where do you start? What are the most complicated places? What’s your plan to do that? How much money is it going to take, and how do you even pay for it? I haven’t seen any of that. Clearly, it’s not the state. The city is the city of Jackson. It elects its mayor, it elects its city councilmen. And those people need to come up with a plan.”

With his answer, Hosemann joined a decades-long chorus of statewide elected officials who misrepresent the causes of Jackson’s infrastructure problems and are reluctant to offer long-term solutions. Mississippi Today spoke with several of the state’s top leaders this week about the current water crisis, and all of them echoed similar sentiments.

Jackson, the state’s largest city, is at least 80% Black. Statewide elected officials are white; the state of Mississippi has never elected a Black statewide official, and legislative leaders who control the state’s budget are white. Most of the city’s white residents like Hosemann, because of more recent infrastructure upgrades in northeast Jackson and their proximity to water treatment plants, rarely experience long-term outages.

Meanwhile, residents in south and west Jackson, majority-Black areas of the city, take the brunt of the city’s infrastructure failings. And because of careful legislative gerrymandering and segregated politics, Black elected officials at the Capitol have little influence over the budget process or other major policy negotiations.

Now 17 days since Jackson’s current water crisis began, an estimated 11,000 households, or around 40,000 people, are still without running water. City officials cannot say definitively when water service will be restored. At least 80 water main breaks and leaks have been reported across the city, and the entire city remains under a boil water notice. Crews completing the repairs have described city pipes, some over 100 years old, as brittle, underscoring the need for a vast overhaul of the city’s aging infrastructure.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has estimated a complete water and sewer replacement project would cost around $2 billion, more than six times the city’s annual budget. On Wednesday, Lumumba wrote a letter to state and federal leaders asking for an emergency appropriation of $47 million to make necessary repairs to solve this current crisis.

“The city of Jackson, like most cities, is under-resourced and not capable of making these corrections based on our own budgetary ability,” Lumumba said during a Wednesday night interview on MSNBC.

Even after water service is restored to the whole city, future crises of this magnitude are all but certain without that overhaul. The years of dedicated investment and work this would take are more than any city could handle on its own, especially one with a gutted tax base — due in large part to outmigration of white residents and business owners who began leaving the city in the 1980s.

Ditto, the city’s last white mayor that Hosemann referenced this week, struggled mightily to maintain the aged infrastructure his white predecessors failed to maintain. One of the worst water crises during Ditto’s tenure as mayor was in 1989, when thousands of the city’s residents were without water on Christmas Day after record low temperatures burst pipes. Hosemann’s comments about Ditto’s tenure have been sharply critiqued in many circles this week.

“I was disappointed that we have leaders in our community who are spreading this kind of misinformation,” Harvey Johnson, Jackson’s first Black mayor who succeeded Ditto in 1997, said of Hosemann’s comments. “It’s a criticism that was misplaced and unfounded. It just perpetuates, in my opinion, this whole notion that Jackson, as a Black city that has Black leadership, can’t do anything themselves. That’s the furthest thing from the truth, and I take offense to that. I’ve been in the venues of public service for 40 years, and have prepared myself to deal with the problems of local government and how to address those problems.

Johnson continued: “For someone (Hosemann) who has a limited perspective on that, I just take exception when they start spouting out those things.”

And while many scoff at providing state assistance, leaders in the city acknowledge they can’t rebuild their infrastructure without that help. As the state’s largest and capital city, anchoring the only true metropolitan area of the state, Jackson’s problems are the state’s problems, they argue.

“State leaders need to understand the importance of the city of Jackson when it comes to the growth of our state in economic development, education, healthcare and other business opportunities,” said state Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat from Jackson. “Jackson is the tree trunk, and the rest of the state are the branches. If the trunk dies, the branches die. So we need to make a concerted effort to make sure the roots are healthy and strong.”

With no long-term solution in sight, Jackson residents continue to suffer and national news crews descend upon the city to cover the crisis. Meanwhile, state leaders continue to put the impetus on the city to fix its own problems. Top leaders interviewed by Mississippi Today this week said they haven’t heard from city leaders directly about the notion of helping, and some expressed concern about stepping in without an ask.

“Do you interfere when you are not asked to? That could be not taken well by some if you do,” Rep. Trey Lamar, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told Mississippi Today.

In terms of state funding, Lamar said there could be opportunities to help the city, “but that depends on what the definition of help is.”

“I don’t think there’s any appetite to help Jackson in the form of a handout,” Lamar said. “Number one, we need to be shown proof that the city is incapable of fixing this problem on their own. I don’t know that legislative support would be there for a handout, but there might be other ways the state could help ensure the work is done if the city were financially responsible for it with the state’s help.”

Gov. Tate Reeves, while answering questions about Jackson’s water crisis on Feb. 23, bluntly reminded listeners that the state doesn’t run Jackson’s water system but vaguely added, “Perhaps we should.” The governor hasn’t acknowledged that comment or the possibility of a state takeover since, and his office has not answered several follow-up questions about it from Mississippi Today.

But during a press conference on Tuesday, Reeves said that “most things should be on the table” when asked if he supported a proposal that would allow the city of Jackson to increase its sales tax by 1% to pay for infrastructure repairs. Then he quickly pivoted to the city’s water billing woes.

“I do think it’s really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money,” Reeves said. “I think that’s been a long standing challenge for the city. I think they will admit that. Clearly their billing system is flawed at best.”

The governor is correct about the city’s water billing challenges. In 2012, the city signed a $91 million contract with Siemens, an international company renowned for its work on municipal water and sewer systems. The contract, the largest in city history, included the installation of new water meters and a modern billing system.

But that contract turned out to be one of the biggest failures in the company’s and city’s history. Siemens failed to deliver on its promises, which led to widespread billing issues and thousands of faulty water meters. Many Jackson residents received inaccurate bills, while others stopped getting billed at all. This left the city with a deficit of around $2 million each month in water collections revenue, and the billing problems continue today.

The city filed a lawsuit against Siemens in June 2019, eventually seeking $450 million in damages. The two parties reached a $89.8 million settlement in March 2020, but that didn’t erase the systemic problems Siemens left behind or recoup the hundreds of millions in water revenue the city lost.

Doing what little they can with limited resources, Jackson’s city council on Tuesday approved a proposal for the 1% sales tax increase to help pay for water and sewage system improvements. That local tax increase requires approval from the Mississippi Legislature, which is controlled by Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, a resident of Clinton.

If the proposal receives legislative approval, it will be placed on a ballot referendum for Jackson residents. However, even if the water tax gets the go-ahead, it would take nearly 143 years for it to generate enough revenue to fund the much-needed water and sewer improvements.

Though lawmakers have long been apprehensive to work with the city, they have passed several measures in recent years to help solve some of the city’s problems. Lawmakers signed off on a one-cent sales tax increase in 2014, giving Jackson new revenue that no other Mississippi city has for infrastructure repairs. The tax has generated around $14 million each year in additional tax revenue. But city leaders, who have opted to spend that additional revenue on less expensive road repairs and repaving instead of replacing pipes beneath the streets, have been criticized for their handling of those funds.

Lawmakers also created the Capitol Complex Improvement District in 2017, which diverted sales tax revenue to fund new infrastructure fixes in Jackson. The aim of the legislation was for the state to pay its fair share for repairs in areas of the city where the state has offices and conducts business.

“I think everybody is frustrated with the city’s plight,” said state Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat from Jackson who worked with state leaders on the 1% sales tax and the Capitol Complex District legislation. “The people who live here are. The people who visit are. Legislators are frustrated. They don’t have confidence in much of the city’s elected leadership. That makes them reluctant to help the city.”

Horhn, who has run unsuccessfully for Jackson mayor several times, said the state’s elected leaders have a long-standing “love-hate relationship” with the city, inspired by decades of neglecting the infrastructure system.

“Part of it is urban-rural. There is a racial overtone,” Horhn said. “There is a sense that the quality of leadership in the capital city is the reason for the problems. A lot of people (at the Capitol) have lost confidence in the elected leadership in Jackson.”

During his interview on Monday, Hosemann launched into an aside, unprompted, about crime in the city of Jackson. While the city saw a historic high in homicides in 2020, white politicians have a long history of exploiting the city’s crime struggles when brushing off calls to help the city.

Hosemann argued that the Legislature is already shouldering undue burdens from the city of Jackson and Hinds County, citing a pending Senate bill that would give Capitol Police jurisdiction over the parts of Jackson and federal CARES Act funds spent on the Hinds County court system. Four special judges were appointed in July to help try the backlog of Hinds County cases that built up during the early months of the pandemic.

“They have cases going back to 1997,” Hosemann said of the Hinds County courts, which hear cases from outside the city of Jackson. “People are not getting tried, and people are dying. There’s murder in the streets here.”

Eventually circling back to the water crisis, Hosemann downplayed any notion of the state stepping in.

“The Legislature is doing its part, we’re doing stuff every day to help our capital city,” Hosemann said. “I live here, my children live here, my grandchildren live here. Some of this, they need to get their water bills out. I will tell you that there are a myriad of problems. To answer your question, no one has contacted us about taking over Jackson’s water.”