After decades of siphoning away the City of Jackson’s tax base the state of Mississippi must now come to terms with the capital city’s inability to repair its water system.
The city is moving into its fifth week without safe drinking water due to a malfunctioning water treatment plant and decaying infrastructure, and now flood waters from the nearby Pearl River are playing havoc with its outdated system. Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency at a Monday briefing that the city would be without “reliable running water at scale” for the foreseeable future.
“Do not drink the water,” Reeves said. “In too many cases, it is raw water from the reservoir being pushed through the pipes. Be smart. Protect yourself. Protect your family.”
The situation is serious enough to warrant the attention of President Joe Biden, according to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who tweeted on Tuesday that the administration has been in contact with state and local officials, including Mayor Antar Lumumba. The Federal Government, she said, will be helping.
“FEMA is working closely with the state officials to identify needs, and the EPA is coordinating with industry partners to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment for emergency repairs at the City of Jackson water treatment facilities,” Jean-Pierre wrote.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency asked Reeves to mobilize the National Guard to help dispense water. Reeves declared the state would be distributing water for “as long as we have to.”
The governor did not invite Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to the press conference and was quick to blame the city’s administration for the growing problem. He had little to say about decades of suburban parasite communities drawing resources from the city and nearly bankrupting it. Critics were quick to notice the racial implications, however.
“This is a public health issue and environmental injustice happening in the blackest state in the nation,” said Maisie Brown, executive coordinator for the Mississippi ACLU. “This is not just affecting the homes of citizens, but the businesses that are here and the ability of children to be in their schools to learn.”
Black cities like Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan have been losing population and revenue to predatory suburbs for decades. The result is falling home prices that generate little tax revenue and declining sales taxes as businesses close and follow wealthier shoppers over the county line.
Families with children also follow newer, richer public schools fed by the swell of new revenue outside the city border and their tax money feeds the suburbs. Meanwhile, aging, tax-starved schools in the central city begin to suffer from outdated facilities. But thanks to the landmark 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley preventing central city students from attending suburban district schools, more and more families must buy into suburb life to access increasingly better funded schools. And so, the decay continues.
As the wealth grows more lopsided, politicians representing whiter, wealthier suburban districts gain more control of state politics and begin steering new development into their own districts, and leaving Jackson with increasingly bigger bills. Jackson’s current mayor claims city residents are now facing up to $2 billion in needed repairs and upgrades, which would require a one-time payment of about $12,500 from every one of the city’s 160,000 residents to finance. It is a scenario that is not likely considering the city’s concentrated poverty.
Despite the claims of white state leadership, mayors have invested huge sums of money repairing Jackson’s water infrastructure. The city nabbed more than $8 million in federal grants between 1997 and 2010, according to former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. The city also had an effective congressional lobbyist who brought in more than $100 million for city projects and repairs. Up until the presidency of Joe Biden, however, that kind of money was less available under conservative presidential administrations and Congress.
Suburbs continued to drain the city of resources, however, while state administrations housed in city buildings generate little revenue and pay no occupancy taxes to Jackson. Jackson’s untaxed property, which consists of government offices, churches and graveyards, comprise roughly half the city’s downtown and near downtown area. This is an issue in many other capital cities as well, but Mayor Lumumba told reporters that other capital cities get payment in lieu of taxes from the state, while Jackson does not.
The West Rankin Utility Authority, serving the sprawl communities of Flowood, Pearl, and Richland, among others, further aggravated the city’s water system by pulling out of its long-term agreement with the city of Jackson for waste processing, leaving Jackson on the hook for more than $1 billion in repairs and upgrades to be environmentally compliant.
Johnson told The Lighthouse that whatever help the state of Mississippi offers needs to be long term, not fleeting and sporadic.
“This is not an episodic problem. We’ve got to do something, but that ‘something’ needs to happen on a continual basis,” Johnson said. “… [I]t’s going to have to be recurrent, because taking all the resources and moving just outside the city and then looking back and saying ‘why aren’t you guys doing anything?’ Well, you’ve done all you could to rob us of the resources we need.”