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EPA Investigates if Mississippi Withheld Critical Water Infrastructure Funds to State’s Majority-Black Capital

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-MS, (seated front) accused Mississippi officials of weaponizing federal water infrastructure money by denying funds to the majority-Black city of Jackson. Seated in order behind Thompson are NAACP national President Derrick Johnson, NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Director Abre’ Conner and Jackson NAACP-branch President Deloris Lee.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves fought back against claims the state of Mississippi discriminated against the majority-Black city of Jackson by refusing to spend federal funds on the city’s aging water system.

The NAACP recently asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate allegations of state deprivation after critical water failures and flooding left thousands of Jackson residents without drinkable water for more than a week in August and September. National NAACP President, Derrick Johnson, joined U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Director, Abre’ Conner, in hosting a town hall meeting on the EPA’s decision.

Thompson said state leaders have been deliberately steering federal monies slated for water infrastructure away from Jackson for at least 25 years.

“This is federal money,” Thompson said. “You can’t take the money and act as if it’s yours. […] This is about whether or not the citizens of Jackson will be treated equally in the disbursement of those federal funds to the state of Mississippi. Plain and simple.”

Johnson, a Jackson resident, said his organization’s Title VI administrative complaint against the state of Mississippi has everything to do with discrimination.

“When you look at what happened with the flooding of our city, the state of Mississippi took a course of action that is very familiar: to blame those who have been injured for their injury without taking any responsibility for the cause of those injuries,” Johnson said. “What happened in August was predictable. It was an intentionality by the state to starve the city of resources over a matter of decades.”

Johnson claimed divestment ramped up after the election of Jackson’s first Black Mayor, Harvey Johnson Jr., in 1997. It was then, he said, state leaders began steering federal water infrastructure funds to wealthy white suburbs in neighboring Madison and Rankin counties, even using federal money to finance the construction of independent water systems. These new systems, he claimed, allowed suburbs to further erode funding for Jackson’s central water system.

“You begin to see the pattern,” Johnson said, “[… eventually] resorting in one of those communities being able to build a water system coming off the city of Jackson’s water system, taking still more resources from the system and hampering its ability to withstand time.”

The West Rankin Utility Authority, serving the suburban communities of Flowood, Pearl, and Richland, further undermined Jackson’s water system by pulling out of a long-term agreement with the city of Jackson for waste processing. The pull-out left Jackson on the hook for more than $1 billion in needed repairs and upgrades to bring its aging sewer system into EPA compliance.

Johnson made an additional reference to the state’s handling of federal Drinking Water Systems Improvements Revolving Loan Fund Program (DWSRF) funds, claiming the state invested these loans outside Jackson.

“One hundred percent of the funds being used to build [suburban water systems] were federal funds,” Johnson said. “Out of 25 years of clean water federal funds that have come to this state the city of Jackson has only received funds for three years—out of 25 years!”

Mississippi Gov., Tate Reeves, argued in a letter to Congress that the city has only applied for DWSRF  funds three times during those 25 years. Former Jackson Mayor, Harvey Johnson Jr., told The Lighthouse he avoided the loans in favor of more competitive loans on the bond market, but news validates Thompson’s claims of state parsimony. The city requested grant money in 2010 for water and sewer repairs after a winter storm burst pipes and shut water off to much of the city, but state leaders rejected the appeal. They instead approved a loan for roughly half the requested amount, and only then after Johnson pressed the bond commission to include it. A YouTube post shows Reeves bragging on a conservative talk radio show in 2011 about helping to block money for Jackson’s water system repairs. Reeves, who sat on the bond commission as state treasurer, sold himself as a tightfisted “watchdog” of state loan money.

Thompson and NAACP officials also pointed out that Mississippi allocated none of the nearly $75 million in water funding it is receiving from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law toward repairing Jackson’s infrastructure.

Reeves was recalcitrant in his response and denied white flight and the emigration of the city’s middle class to suburbs was hollowing out city coffers. The governor said city revenue actually managed to increase even as its fleeing population fueled massive property tax growth in suburbs like Madison.

“The city has not experienced a reduction of tax revenue due to ‘a steady exodus of white and affluent residents,’” Reeves wrote. “Between 2003 and 2020, the city has seen an $84 million increase in total revenue from $180 million to $264 million. Specifically, during this time property tax revenues have increased by $19 million from just under $60 million to $79 million, and sales tax and other revenue has increased $18 million from $36 million to $54 million.”

Reeves left pivotal details out of his claim, however. The “other revenue” he cited  from sources other than water and sewer fees or property and sales taxes likely includes Metropolitan Planning Organization money for roads and bridges and ad valorem taxes for public schools, as well as revenue generated from car tag purchases and city-owned cell phone towers. None of that additional revenue can easily go to water and sewer upgrades. Additionally, the property tax revenue increase Reeves references comes from onerous property tax hikes the city council has been forced to approve to shore up budget shortfalls. Property taxes, also, cannot be used for water and sewer repairs without causing problems.

Counter to what Reeves implies, the city finances water and sewer repair projects almost exclusively through revenue bonds—borrowed debt—which is funded by the city’s enterprise fund. That enterprise fund gets its money through water and sewer fees, which dropped between 2019 and 2020, according to Reeves’ own source. The governor attributed that drop exclusively to administrative “mismanagement,” despite the city laboring to recover from an unsuccessful revenue collection upgrade and incompatible water meters.

Between 2019 and 2020, the City of Jackson suffered a nearly $10M drop in water and sewer revenue, which is the primary source for city water and sewer repair projects. This information is contrary to state claims the city is bursting with money for water projects.

The federal government will not easily accept Reeves’ claims without investigation. President Biden’s appointed EPA Administrator, Michael S. Regan, announced last year he would be incorporating the president’s “Justice 40” directive to “prioritize direct and indirect benefits to underserved communities” as part of the EPA’s first 100 day-plan. That work includes ferreting out allegations of misuse of federal money slated for impoverished communities. The EPA also recently announced the opening of a new external civil rights office, the Office of Environmental Justice, “to better advance environmental justice, enforce civil rights laws in overburdened communities, and deliver new grants and technical assistance.”

Abre’ Connor said the EPA, under President Biden, is putting renewed emphasis on compassion for impoverished communities. This, she said, is a dramatic change from prior administrations.

“There were for years a time where the EPA was not even opening up Title VI complaints,” Connor said. “It’s not that environmental justice issues weren’t happening during that time. It got to a place where, quite frankly, groups felt like they needed to actually sue the EPA to get them to do their job, to help historically disadvantaged communities.”

The current administration’s priority change could herald further scrutiny on Mississippi’s government.

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