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Legislative Assistance For Jackson Water Crisis Rests On Single State Bill and Federal Aid

John Horhn
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, wrote the initial version of the water-repayment bill that is currently on its way to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk. He sat down with the Mississippi Free Press to explain the federal money coming to the state from the American Rescue Plan. Photo courtesy Jackson Free Press / Imani Khayyam.

The Mississippi Legislature’s effort to assist in the Jackson water crisis has been pared down to a single bill on water-payment flexibility and $3 million from the capital expense fund, a far cry from the ambitious plans that emerged at the peak of the outages.

But legislators involved in the ongoing deliberations over the crisis say the federal government is expected to provide significant support for the City of Jackson and Hinds County, between the disaster declaration and the American Rescue Plan. 

With hundreds of millions of dollars in the balance, the Legislature appears to be adopting a wait-and-see approach on funding the massive repairs and improvements that Jackson needs to make its water system whole. 

‘We’ve Got What We Asked For’

The most significant surviving legislation is a redux of the water-repayment plan bill that Gov. Tate Reeves spiked last session. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, authored House Bill 359, which would allow the City of Jackson to offer flexible repayment plans for “uncollectible” water debts. The bill would also allow debt forgiveness for any water bills deemed to be erroneous: from faulty meter readings—a result of an aging billing system and the disastrous Siemens contract, or natural disasters—like February’s winter storms.

The bill’s final conference report passed both chambers late Sunday, reconciling the House and Senate versions. H.B. 359 now awaits the governor’s signature. Despite efforts early in the session to broaden the scope of the bill so that it would apply to more cities than Jackson, the bill landing on Reeves’ desk this week is based on last year’s version: only Jackson will be allowed to take advantage of its provisions.

Ronnie Crudup Jr
Ronnie Crudup Jr. suggested that the State will use Jackson as a test case for a water-bill repayment policy, which is part of a bill headed to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk. Photo by Nick Judin

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, drafted the same bill last session, which passed in both chambers with unanimous support, only to meet an unceremonious end when Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed it. The governor’s veto message hinged on the fact that the bill affected only Jackson. 

“The City of Jackson is not the only municipality in the state with outstanding uncollected debt for water and sewer services … there are ‘disproportionately impoverished or needy’ Mississippians throughout the state that have overdue balances for water and sewer services,” Reeves wrote.

Bell told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview in late March that his version of the bill was originally drafted to expand the eligibility for debt forgiveness specifically to avoid the veto that had toppled the bill last year.

But Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr., D-Jackson, explained in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press today that the governor’s office and the Mississippi Municipal League requested that legislators roll back the expansive version of the plan to a bill targeting only Jackson.

In an afternoon interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Horhn explained that language from his version of the bill on the Senate side had successfully emerged from the conference.

“We responded (to the governor’s veto) by making it about everyone, but as Jackson’s problems have become more manifest, we decided to hone back in and just focus on Jackson,” he said. Horhn confirmed that Reeves requested the change back to language similar to the bill he vetoed.

Official headshot of Chris Bell
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said that the scope of his bill being reduced to cover only Jackson came from the state’s desire to control how the plan would work. Photo courtesy State of Mississippi

The Jackson legislators reached for this story differed on the reasons for the bill’s circuitous path back to Reeves’ desk. Crudup and Horhn suggested that Jackson would be used as a test case for the repayment policy, while Bell said the limited scope was re-introduced to the bill so that the State could more effectively scrutinize which outstanding payments were forgiven.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got what we’ve asked for: the same piece of legislation we (tried) last year,” Bell said.

With the governor’s office and the legislators involved working together on the final language of the bill—and in the wake of the national attention that the Jackson water crisis has drawn—Horhn seemed cautiously optimistic that the bill would receive a warmer reception from Reeves this time around.

“The conferees worked closely with the governor’s staff to draft the conference report,” Horhn said. “With (so) much communication going on to satisfy the governor’s office, I would be surprised if the bill were not signed.”

H.B. 359 would represent a strong step forward for Jackson’s water-billing problems, but even the complete repair of the City of Jackson’s enterprise fund is not enough to address the enormous financial burden of the city’s infrastructure crisis.

The bill represents the last state legislative stab at action on the Jackson water crisis for this session, save a footnote: $3 million from the capital expense fund into the budget for the city’s water system. The city’s original ask, for $47 million in state funds; and Horhn’s initial proposal, to match $30 million in state funds to a $30-million investment from the city in this year’s bond bill; failed to materialize, with all eyes on a much juicier prize: federal relief dollars.

The Jackson Rescue Plan

Attempts to generate additional ongoing revenue died with Rep. Bell’s additional 1% sales tax proposal, which expired last week in the House Local and Private committee. Bell’s bill would have allowed residents of the City of Jackson to vote on the measure, a referendum that legislative action alone must initiate.

But the American Rescue Plan and the declaration of emergency that followed the winter storms have the potential to generate enormous one-time payments for the State of Mississippi, Hinds County and the City of Jackson, much of which could be used to fix the capital’s city’s aging water-treatment plants or transmission system.

“Included in (the American Rescue Plan) is $1.8 billion in a block grant for Mississippi. Subject to getting the rules about how that money can be used, we think that there may be sources of funding for Jackson,” Horhn said—adding that, specifically, that may be the city’s ailing water system. 

“There’s $166 million coming to the state separate from that for capital projects,” Horhn continued. “We think that we can set up a fund to assist all of the communicates that were impacted by the ice storm with that $166 million—again, subject to the guidelines. It looks like it would be an appropriate expenditure.”

President Joe Biden participating in a virtual phone conference
President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is expected to deliver billions of dollars to the State of Mississippi, some of which legislators hope can assist in the Jackson water crisis.(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Additionally, Horhn said, the American Rescue Plan includes $9.9 billion for homeowners’ assistance, money for the entire nation that can be used to pay for overdue mortgages, property taxes or overdue utility bills. If any part of that money reaches Jackson, it could be used to address some of the otherwise unpayable water bills that have accrued over the years that the City has lacked a functioning water billing system.

“The city, under the ARP program, is going to get $47 million in (Housing and Urban Development) money. Hinds County is going to get $45 million in HUD money for coronavirus-related expenses or for infrastructure improvement,” Horhn explained. That the city and county will receive significant federal dollars is a guarantee, how and where those funds will be spent remains to be seen.

The amount of money the capital city will receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is highly variable. Hinds County initially asked for $147 million from the federal government in the wake of the ice storms. Horhn says that estimate was pared down significantly to somewhere between $18 million and $130 million, and then explained the enormous range.

“The $18 million only speaks to what the city spent. It doesn’t include the damage—our estimate (for that) is $130 million,” Horhn said, without speculating on where the final relief aid would land between covering hard expenses and total estimated damages.

Regardless, whatever amount the federal government eventually approves will be used to pay for damages and, hopefully, to begin setting up the infrastructure improvements and repairs that will make the system whole again.

All told, the American Rescue Plan looks to be an enormous opportunity for the City of Jackson to receive a financial shot in the arm. Much of those funds could go to its water system, which faces decades-old decay that only a gargantuan investment could address.

How much the city receives, and how it plans to manage and spend the funds, is a story still waiting to be written.

UPDATE: The day after this story went live, Sen. John Horhn informed the Mississippi Free Press that the capital expense fund investment in Jackson had been raised from $2 million to $3 million.

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