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Congress Investigating Mississippi’s Use of Infrastructure Funds After Latest Jackson Water Crisis

Rep. Bennie Thompson sitting in his chair at a committee hearing
In an Oct. 17, 2022, letter, U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson (pictured), D-Miss., and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., asked Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to share information on how the State of Mississippi plans to spend federal infrastructure money and urged him to ensure Jackson’s beleaguered water system receives an appropriate share of funds. Rep. Bennie Thompson / U.S. House of Representatives

Congress has announced a formal investigation into how Mississippi is spending billions in federal infrastructure money, with a particular focus on how the State plans to use those funds to address the City of Jackson’s water problems.

President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and his Bipartisan Infrastructure law directed $10 billion to the State of Mississippi, including $429 million specifically for water systems. Since the winter of 2021, Jackson residents have undergone two acute water crises in which residents did not have clean or safe, drinkable water for weeks at a time, including most recently in September.

U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes Jackson and who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, joined U.S. House Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, in a letter to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday.

“We urge you to take action to protect the health and safety of Jackson residents and direct funding to Jackson immediately to fix this life and death issue,” they wrote. “This funding must be sustained to ensure that a safe and dependable drinking water system endures, especially in the face of climate change that will put even more stress on the city’s water infrastructure.”

While a winter freeze triggered the winter 2021 water crisis, the 2022 crisis followed flooding from the Pearl River. Thompson and Maloney noted that climate change is exacerbating such extreme weather events, an assertion scientists support. Even before the water failures that began in late August and lasted for weeks in September, though, the City of Jackson had been under a boil-water notice since July.

In the letter to Reeves, the representatives raised concerns that Mississippi leaders could shortchange Jackson on infrastructure funds, noting that the “criteria used by the state to allocate federal funding may limit the funds Jackson receives compared to other locales, despite Jackson’s greater need.” Some estimates for the cost to fully repair and upgrade Jackson’s water system exceed $1 billion.

“Under the matching formula Mississippi adopted for America Rescue Plan funds, Jackson would directly receive, at most, around $84 million for water projects,” Thompson and Maloney’s letter said. They asked Reeves to “provide the Committees with information related to the State of Mississippi’s efforts to address the water crisis in Jackson and improve drinking water infrastructure, including the distribution of federal funds to localities, by October 31, 2022.”

They questioned Reeves’ commitment to the capital city, noting that “during a recent address in Hattiesburg, you noted flippantly that it was ‘as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.’” Reeves made those comments in mid-September, soon after the most recent crisis. They noted that Jackson is an 83% Black city and, like other majority-Black cities, suffers from divestment and underfunding.

“Although Jackson is the capital and the most populous city in Mississippi, its high percentage of residents with low incomes means the city is financially strained, limiting its ability to allocate resources to public services—including water services,” Thompson and Maloney wrote. “Due to a steady exodus of white and affluent residents, the city has a reduced tax base to repair aging infrastructure. State-related roadblocks—which continue to this day—have left Jackson without critical federal funding.

“Many neighboring communities have installed new water systems, but pipes under Jackson have not been properly maintained since the 1950s.”

‘A Huge Mistake By The City’

On the same day Reps. Thompson and Maloney sent the letter, though, Gov. Reeves, a Republican, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, continued their ongoing public feud over addressing the capital city’s water system. In a statement, the governor accused Lumumba of effectively ending the City’s cooperation with Unified Command Structure to address the City’s water issues by refusing to cooperate on efforts to choose a third-party water contractor for operations, maintenance and management at the City’s water-treatment facilities.

“We have been told by city officials that the Mayor of Jackson is planning to functionally end the city’s cooperation with the Unified Command Structure—the team that has been keeping Jackson water stable—by refusing to participate in the process of selecting a water operator alongside federal and state water experts as the Biden Administration has repeatedly asked to be done,” Reeves said. “That would be a huge mistake by the city. They would be communicating through this action that they no longer desire state assistance and insist on going it alone.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, right, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, left, publicly argued over the City’s participation in selecting a contractor to operate, maintain and manage the City’s water treatment plant on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. They are seen here during a Sept. 7, 2022, press conference on the Jackson water crisis. Photo by Nick Judin

“… The state has poured millions of dollars from taxpayers of every county into this effort to rescue the city from a crisis of incompetence,” Reeves continued. “If the politicians of the city of Jackson are determined to reject every helping hand and regulatory enforcement action, they will find themselves in an even worse situation. There is very little trust amongst any outside observer that the Mayor putting his thumb more heavily on the scale to select a vendor will lead to a better outcome than experts from the Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency having a seat at the table and ensuring there are no games.”

The governor claimed Lumumba does not deserve “the benefit of the doubt” on “contracts and water issues,” referring in part to the mayor’s ongoing disputes with the Jackson City Council over a waste contract that nearly derailed trash pickup operations earlier this month.

“The people of Jackson cannot afford another critical water failure due to a contract dispute akin to his garbage debacle,” Reeves said. “Although politics is clearly his priority, we are simply trying to ensure that Jackson water does not fail again. Ultimately, it may fall to the city council to rein in this radical gambit.”

‘No Mention Of Ending The City’s Cooperation’

Mayor Lumumba rejected the governor’s characterizations in a statement of his own later Monday afternoon, calling it an “erroneous” news release.

“The City of Jackson has made no mention of ending the City’s cooperation with the Unified Command Structure. In fact, we continue to work closely with the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi State Department of Health,” the mayor said.

“What the city will not do is agree to a Request for Qualifications, without the entire Unified Command Structure, which includes the City, having had an opportunity to first contribute, revise or approve the language. The funds that will be used to hire any firm working at the water treatment facilities will come from the City and its citizens.

“Therefore, the City, with support from those who truly are invested in the repair and maintenance of the water treatment facilities, will have the final say. The third-party management company will be working for the City. It is only reasonable to expect the City to play a role in hiring that company.”

See the Mississippi Free Press’ full Jackson water-crisis coverage, starting in March 2021.

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