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Jackson Water Concerns Remain A Year After Federal Takeover Despite Significant Improvements

Ted Henifin sitting outside and speaking
JXN Water Interim Third Party Manager Ted Henifin held a press conference on Nov. 29, 2023, to commemorate his first year at the helm of Jackson’s water system. “In many ways, the water system is light years ahead of where it was a year ago when the (stipulated) order was signed, but we do have a long way to go,” Henifin said.  Photo by Nick Judin

Even as some Jackson leaders and residents continue raising concerns about the water system, JXN Water Interim Third Party Manager Ted Henifin says the organization has made “amazing strides” in his first year overseeing the Mississippi capital’s long-troubled water system.

He made the remarks at a press conference where he commemorated the one-year anniversary of his appointment to oversee the system as he talked about ongoing projects he’s focused on through 2027 for the city’s water and sewer systems.

“I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to be out in Jackson, at restaurants, on the streets, in farmer’s markets and have people come up to me thanking me for the work JXN Water’s doing,” he said at the event on Nov. 29. Henifin highlighted JXN Water employees and contractors who’ve helped to correct the infrastructure issues.

“Due to great people, we’re making great progress,” he said.

That progress has included stabilizing the water plant’s distribution center, restoring water pressure for residents, adopting a leak find-and-fix program, setting up a 24-hour call center to respond to customer questions and initiating their Minority Business Enterprise which prioritizes contracting local, minority-owned businesses for projects. A figure from JXN Water’s third quarterly report shows the company spent nearly $7.5 million with minority-owned businesses.

“In many ways the water system is light years ahead of where it was a year ago when the (stipulated) order was signed, but we do have a long way to go,” Henifin said.

Appointment Followed Catastrophic Failures

Jackson’s water issues came to a head last year following decades of disrepair, staffing shortages and disagreements between local and state officials about who should be financially responsible for fixing the city’s failing infrastructure. Winter storms caused severe flooding on the Pearl River which led the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant to shut down and left over 150,000 residents without clean, drinkable water for over a month.

The acute crisis shone a national spotlight onto Jackson’s longstanding water problems, which some compared Jackson’s water issues to the water-supply crisis in Flint, Mich., as leaders like Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba scrambled to remedy the situation and deliver bottled water to residents. Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed a bill giving Jackson $600 million to repair its water system in late 2022.

JXN Water’s list of contractors
JXN Water included this list of minority-owned businesses they’ve contracted to do work in their third quarterly report released on Sept. 30, 2023. Chart courtesy JXN Water

The U.S. Department of Justice intervened with an order on Nov. 29, 2022, establishing an interim third party manager to stabilize Jackson’s water system and bring it into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Judge Henry T. Wingate approved Henifin to take over the system and later rebuffed critics of Henifin’s stewardship. Some community activists have questioned the interim third party manager’s leadership and demanded more transparency from JXN Water over the past year

“He clearly is the man for the job, as any fair-minded, knowledgeable observer would attest,” Wingate said during a court hearing on July 21.

Jackson residents who spoke at a public hearing on Sept. 29 largely supported Wingate’s proposal to give JXN Water and Henifin responsibility for Jackson’s sewer system.

‘Find The People Who Aren’t Paying Their Bill’

Despite the progress Ted Henifin described on Nov. 29, customers have lingering questions about inflated water bills, new water rates Henifin proposed on Nov. 17 and JXN Water’s bill collection rate. Several Jackson City Council members spoke out at a council meeting on Dec. 5 about ongoing issues they said residents in their wards are having with JXN Water.

“Something is wrong. Hopefully we can work through these situations and try to create a win-win situation with everybody on the same page,” Councilman Kenneth Stokes said on Dec. 5. He cited residents’ repeated complaints about sewer pipe leaks and high water bills and said he’d like JXN Water to listen to complaints to avoid residents in his ward feeling like they’re being “mistreated or shortchanged.”

The councilman said he would meet later that day with JXN Water about making sewer line repairs on Mobile Street. He also again suggested that JXN Water should create and implement a written process for water customers to appeal what they believe to be over-inflated bills.

At the same city council meeting on Dec. 5, Ward 1 City Councilman Ashby Foote said residents in his ward are worried about the equitability of the new customer-billing structure Henifin proposed on Nov. 17. “While I know that Mr. Henifin wants to adjust the water bill rates to make sure they’re getting sufficient revenue coming in, I think before they change the rates themselves, they need to address the most important rate which is the collection rate,” he said.

A notice from Jxn Water that starts: It's time for everyone to get current
In September 2023, JXN Water started to send letters to customers urging them to pay their water bills and warned of impending shut-offs. Photo courtesyJXN Water

“We still have a collection rate that is way below the national average,” Foote said. He said JXN Water needs to prioritize making sure that everyone who’s using water is paying their bills before raising rates on “customers who’d been paying their rates all along.”

“You’ve got to find the people who aren’t paying their bill and get them included in the process. You’ve got to be willing to turn the water off so that people will pay their bill,” Foote told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview on Dec. 5. “If people think you’re not going to do anything, some people won’t pay the bill at all.”

Henifin addressed Jackson’s low bill collection rate at the press conference on Nov. 17 where he proposed the new customer-billing structure. He said the water billing increases would allow JXN Water to be self-sustaining once the federal funds allocated to rehab the water system run out. Those funds cannot be used for sewer-related fixes.

At Henifin’s press conference on Nov. 29, he asked for patience as JXN Water continues to repair the water infrastructure and educate the public about the city’s water system. He said he anticipates transitioning into a more remote or advisory role over the next few years.

“Unless we find another entity or something changes or you guys decide to throw me out of town, I’m planning to be here until the end of the sewer order, September 30, 2027—a lot more time in Jackson than I expected,” he said.

You can read about the progress JXN Water has made and see ongoing projects in JXN Water’s third quarterly report here.

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