The State of Mississippi is now in talks with a private company about managing its capital city’s struggling water system, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said during a press conference Tuesday. The City of Jackson was also in discussions with the company before the State took over, he added.
“We had been in discussion with a corporation about taking over an operations and maintenance contract, but what I delayed telling you is that conversation stopped because they picked it up with the State,” the mayor told reporters. “So we’ve been unable to reach an agreement with them because we’re no longer at the table to talk about what that agreement would look like.”
Lumumba did not name the company. His remarks came a day after Gov. Tate Reeves, at a separate Labor Day press conference, said he was considering various long-term ideas for addressing Jackson’s water problems and that “privatization is on the table.”
The Mississippi Free Press asked the mayor’s office for the name of the company with whom the City and State have had discussions, but Jackson Communications Director Melissa Faith Payne said the City was not releasing its name “due to ongoing negotiations.” The City provided no indication of a request-for-proposal process.
No ‘Mission Accomplished Banner’
The City of Jackson has been under a boil-water notice since July 29, but the problems reached acute levels early last week when residents lost water pressure due to failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The crisis required the mobilization of state and federal resources to help fix the immediate issue and supply residents with millions of bottles of water in the meantime.
Officials said they had restored water pressure to the capital city by Monday, but the boil-water notice remains in effect. Though Jacksonians again have running water, officials estimate it will take more than $1 billion to repair the City’s aged water system to avoid repeats.
“I think it’s critical that we don’t drop a ‘mission accomplished’ banner just yet because it’s as we said it is—it’s not a matter of if the systems will fail again but when the systems will fail again if we don’t have permanent repairs in place,” Mayor Lumumba said Tuesday.
During the press conference, the mayor expressed frustration that the State had taken over discussions with the unnamed company, saying that “if there is some unity in thinking that this company is sufficient in order to operate the City of Jackson’s water treatment facility, then there should be no barrier between our ability to let the City do that because we’re talking about the same company.”
“The only difference would be how the profits are distributed into priorities for the city,” the mayor said, adding that his administration wants those funds to go to “various infrastructure challenges with the first priority being drinking water.”
Despite his willingness to enter into a contract with a private company on behalf of the City of Jackson, though, Lumumba said he is “against privatization,” warning that handing the entire system over to the private sector could lead to “the pillaging of public resources.”
“We have to understand the difference between privatization and an operations and maintenance agreement,” Lumumba said. “Privatization is based on a company trying to identify how they can profit off of a city. They’re not coming to be benevolent, they’re coming to make money.”
Typically, companies that enter into contracts with city and state governments also have an interest in making a profit. The City of Jackson has dealt for years with problems stemming from its 2010 water-billing and repair contract with Siemens Inc.
‘We’ve Had Many, Many Plans’
At a Monday press conference, Mississippi’s Republican governor criticized Jackson leaders, saying the State had “never received a real plan from Jackson on how to improve their water system so the state could consider how to fund it.”
“I personally believe we can’t depend on the City of Jackson to provide that and, therefore, we are going to work with State and federal partners and with input from the City to develop intermediate and long-term plans,” he said.
Reeves noted that U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Jackson, has also claimed Jackson had failed to produce a plan and raised questions about whether the City should regain “authority to run it.”
During a press conference last week, Mayor Lumumba seemed to acknowledge the need for a plan, vowing to reporters and residents that “you will see before you in short order, possibly as soon as next week, a full-scale committee of individuals that are working toward the execution and production of that plan.”
But on Tuesday, the Democratic mayor said “we’ve had many, many plans.” He recited a list of documents, including a capital improvement plan that he said was commissioned in either 2018 and 2019; a list of critical repairs that the Environmental Protection Agency previously identified; and a Powerpoint presentation for the Hinds County state legislative delegation that he said detailed $120 million in repairs for the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. (The Mississippi Free Press has requested copies of those documents).
A WLBT analysis found that the total total costs to repair Jackson’s water system could be as high as $1.7 billion.
The documents, Lumumba said, show the City has already offered plans for addressing Jackson’s water issues to State and federal officials on numerous occasions. He also shared a March 3, 2020, letter addressed to Reeves, asking for “emergency funding from the State and federal government to make capital improvements necessary for the efficient operation of Jackson’s water treatment plants and distribution network.”
“These improvements are critical to our efforts to ensure that our residents and businesses are not deprived of clean water again,” the mayor wrote. “I have attached a list of needed improvements for our plants and distribution lines with an estimated cost of approximately $47,000,000. Your assistance in obtaining the funding to complete these projects will be greatly appreciated.”
The mayor said he sent copies of that letter to other leaders, including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, members of the Hinds County state legislative delegations and members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, including Thompson.
“I want to be clear that we have endeavored to communicate,” Lumumba said. “Now, if the effort of communication that is asked for is not sufficient in order to meet those legislative requests, then we are malleable.”
See the Mississippi Free Press’ full Jackson water-crisis coverage, starting in March 2021.