Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann met today at the Capitol for a “respectful conversation,” in the mayor’s words, to discuss a concrete plan to address Jackson’s short-term water-system needs. The meeting was a preface to the much more complex discussion of how to permanently address the city’s aging water infrastructure.
Now, both House and Senate leadership have formally received the City of Jackson’s requests, which includes nearly $47 million for immediate water distribution and treatment maintenance and a proposal to add an additional 1 percent to the sales tax in Jackson for ongoing improvements.
The meetings come at what residents hope is the tail end of the immediate crisis, an interminable month without drinkable water for the city’s roughly 160,000 residents, and for many, weeks without any water at all.
‘We Need a Dedicated Line of Funding’
Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba sat down with the Mississippi Free Press this afternoon to discuss the Jackson water crisis and his evolving conversations with state leadership on the path forward.
Lumumba stressed the need for additional taxation to help narrow the gap between the city’s funding needs and its current income. “We need a dedicated line of funding, which will enable us to deal with the ongoing aged infrastructure,” he said.
“That’s not really asking the state for anything, that’s asking for the ability to go to the residents in order to add one more penny to our sales tax,” Lumumba said. Legislative approval would allow the city to hold a vote on the matter. Success in the Legislature and the ballot box would generate an additional $13 million to $15 million of revenue for use on city infrastructure projects.
The meeting is the first sign of warming in a relationship that chilled significantly after Hosemann’s comments at last week’s Stennis Press Forum. There, the lieutenant governor told the Mississippi Free Press that he had “no contact from the city at all” about the ongoing crisis, that he had yet to see plans for the requisite water improvements, and lamented what he portrayed as a lack of action to repair water and sewer lines since the administration of Kane Ditto, who was Jackson’s last white mayor.
Former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., the city’s first Black mayor, who succeeded Ditto, fired back, pointing to hundreds of millions of dollars in water improvements over his 12-year tenure as mayor.
‘I’m Supposed to Be Cheap, Right?’
Lumumba raised the pressure again at a March 4 mayoral debate, in which he recounted a conversation with the lieutenant governor where Hosemann, the mayor said, all but demanded control of the Jackson International Airport for the paltry sum of $30 million.
“So not only am I supposed to be dumb, I’m supposed to be cheap, right?” Lumumba asked on the debate stage last week. Today, the mayor put a diplomatic face on the dust-up, declining to describe the public struggle with the Senate leader as hostile.
“I would characterize it as two people holding strong positions for those that they represent,” Lumumba said.
Now, with the peace-making done, the deal-making begins. “We will continue to maintain a discussion with key players in the state Legislature. We will be following up with letters of support from various entities that support the city and its requests,” the mayor said.
The mayor paused to address the underlying complaint heard from many legislative observers outside Jackson. “I just want to be clear on this point: there has never been a lack of a plan for the city of Jackson,” Lumumba asserted. He added that “a plan is only as good as this execution. If we don’t have the resources to execute it, it’s just a piece of paper.”
‘Trying to Fix the Bike While Riding It’
Lumumba addressed other questions that have cropped up during the water crisis in the interview, explaining that Hinds County was last to join the disaster declaration because, essentially, the crisis was still ongoing. “Our numbers and the damages that we have suffered are still being tallied up,” he said. “It’s trying to fix the bike while riding it.”
On the question of the Siemens settlement money, Lumumba explained that the dollars were spoken for between repayment of a loan from the city’s general fund, covenants for bonds already issued which require forthcoming payments to be kept in escrow, and funding to actually address the water billing issue that the Siemens contract failed to address.
With the first signs of cooperation between Lumumba, Hosemann and Gunn, one key figure is left out of the conversation. The Mississippi Free Press asked Lumumba if he would be sitting down with Gov. Tate Reeves to discuss the city’s request for additional funding.
“I fully anticipate doing so,” he said.