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Renewed Jackson Water Takeover Bill Earns Henefin’s Support

A closeup of an older man looking to the right of the frame. A brown wood slat wall is behind him.
Ted Henifin, the interim third-party manager of the Jackson, Miss., water and sewer systems, supports Mississippi Senate Bill 2628, which would create the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority to control the systems once he is gone, he said on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Nick Judin

Renewed efforts to create a regional water authority to control the long-beleaguered Jackson, Miss., water and sewer systems have earned the backing of Ted Henifin, the interim third-party manager who is currently in charge of the system.

Henifin’s announced his support on Feb. 23—a marked contrast to accusations he previously made that a similar bill Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, introduced last year represented an attempt by state lawmakers to take over the capital city’s water system.

“After reviewing S.B. 2628, I believe this is a great foundation. It appears that many of the comments I provided during the last session regarding the bill introduced in 2023 were taken to heart and this bill now includes many of the suggestions I made at that time,” Henifin said.

“The bill identifies a need for appropriations but I recommend defining a specific dollar figure to fund start-up costs for the authority be included in the FY 2025 state budget,” the statement continues.

Parker introduced Senate Bill 2889 last year, his first attempt at passing the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act. After Parker’s initial proposal, Henifin told the Mississippi Free Press in January 2023 that federal funds to help Jackson shore up its water system had “created a monster in the Mississippi Legislature.” But in December 2023, Henifin said that residents would benefit from an independent, non-partisan authority having control over the city’s water system, WLBT reported.

‘I’ve Tried to Make This a Better Product’

When speaking to the media last year about the previous bill, Sen. Parker denied Ted Henifin’s warning that it might allow state lawmakers to appropriate money meant for Jackson to other municipalities. The Republican senator’s previous bill said that the mayors of both Ridgeland and Byram would be involved in appointing members to the regional water-authority utility board.

“There is no intent on my part to stack a board in any way, shape or form that would give preferential treatment to the fringe areas of the water authority,” the Mississippi Free Press reported on Feb. 3, 2023. “My hope would be that if the majority of the water authority is within the City of Jackson, I would hope that the governor, lieutenant governor and mayor would put people on the board from those geographic areas.”

Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, speaks during debate
Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, introduced Senate Bill 2628 on Feb. 21, 2024, proposing the creation of a regional water authority to control the Jackson, Miss., water and sewer utilities. AP Photo / Rogelio V. Solis

Parker’s new bill does not involve the mayors of either Ridgeland or Byram in the board’s creation but does state that “the authority shall have oversight or control of only wastewater service provided to ratepayers” in the City of Ridgeland after July 1, 2024.

During the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee meeting on Feb. 21, Parker said that he changed the language of the original bill after speaking with Henifin and others. “I’ve tried to make this a better product. I’ve tried to make it be one that takes as much of the politics out of it as possible,” he said.

The Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act, as Parker proposes in the new bill, would allow the creation of a nine-member utility board—five that the governor appointed and four that the lieutenant governor appointed, to control the capital city’s water and sewer systems. The board members would consult with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to appoint a president for the utility authority.

In his statement on Feb. 21, Henifin listed specific declarations in the new bill that he supports.

“The ITPM supports many of the bill’s key elements:

  • All Federal funds received to date to be spent according to the direction of the ITPM and the Court
  • Authority assumes ownership and operations and maintenance upon the date of termination of the Order or earlier as ordered by the Court
  • Authority can issue bonds
  • Authority develops own procedures for procurements less than $1.0 million
  • Authority to consult with the Court in appointing a President (paid for by State) and to serve as ITPM’s deputy in the transition
  • Authorizes the Mississippi SRF program to loan funds at zero percent with a 40-year term to make such purchase
  • Board serves without salary
  • Employees of Authority serve at will and pleasure of president who sets compensation and benefits
  • Nine-member board from very specific constituencies – five appointed by Governor and four by Lt. Governor
  • Set rates subject to PSC review – PSC shall defer to Authority’s determination of what rates are just and reasonable absent a showing of manifest error
  • State provides surety for short-term borrowing through 2029
  • The bill authorizes the Authority to purchase the water and sewer assets at fair market value”

Henifin will meet with lawmakers to further discuss the bill, JXN Water confirmed in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press on Feb. 23.

“This is a way that we can set that in motion and try to have something that’s fair and equitable, that provides a way to make a difference for the people of Jackson who’ve been in crisis over this issue,” Parker said at the Feb. 21 Senate Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee meeting.

‘Here We Go Again’

Jacksonians have long-fought bills that they say allow the mostly white and Republican Legislature to usurp power from the majority-Black capital city. Last February, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said that the attempted takeover of Jackson’s water system and federal funds the Biden Administration allocated from the Safe Drinking Water Act to stabilize the City’s system were another reminder of what he perceived as the state’s domineering relationship with the city.

“It is plantation politics,” Lumumba told the Mississippi Free Press on Feb. 3, 2023. “It’s consistent with this paternalistic relationship that the State of Mississippi believes that it maintains with the City of Jackson.”

State Sen. David Blount speaks at a mic
Mississippi Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said on Feb. 21, 2024, that Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, had not worked with Jackson-area lawmakers while drafting the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The Mississippi Free Press reached out to Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s office on Feb. 23 for a comment on Henifin’s support of Senate Bill 2628. The mayor declined to comment.

During the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee meeting committee meeting on Feb. 21, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, pushed back against Senate Bill 2628. The Democratic senator said Sen. Parker had not done a good job of consulting him or other Jackson-area lawmakers who represent residents who would be affected by the legislation. He said the residents of Jackson should have some say in who manages the water system.

“Here we go again,” Blount said. “I certainly don’t question anybody’s motives in doing what they think is right, but with any other community, with your community, if there was a bill about your district, you would want to be involved and you would want motivation for that bill to come from the people who are affected by that bill. That has not happened.”

The Mississippi Free Press contacted Blount and Parker for interviews for this story on Monday, but did not hear back by publication time.

State and City officials walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility
Jim Craig, of the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, center, and Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, at a water-treatment facility in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo/Pool

Henifin said on Nov. 29, 2023, that he anticipated being in Jackson until at least September 2027, but added that he’d be transitioning into a more remote role over the next few years. A federal court appointed him to oversee the water system after the 2022 Jackson water crisis and later put him in charge of the sewer system as well.

“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.

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