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Biden Administration Invests in Jackson Water After Decades of MS Legislative Neglect

As state auditor, Tate Reeves rejected city requests for loans for infrastructure repair. Photo source: Twitter.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba announced in a Jan. 6 statement that the city of Jackson has managed to nab about $800 million in grants and loans exclusively for upgrades and repairs to its failing water system.

“Today, we can finally say after decades of kicking the can of crumbling infrastructure down the road, the stars have aligned for Jackson.” Lumumba said at a Jan. 5 press conference. “[…] At this moment in time, we have secured the expertise and the funding needed to start repairing, replacing and modernizing Jackson’s water system.”

The city of Jackson has been plagued by decades of infrastructure deterioration as reoccurring budget shortfalls forced prior administrations to defer much-needed repairs. Boil water notices are now a repeat problem as the city’s water treatment plant ages and dribbles insufficient pressure into crumbling pipes. Recent pressure problems have completely cut water to whole sections of the city and hurt city businesses. Low water pressure or absent pressure even closed some city schools as recently as this month.

State Republican leadership regularly shorted the city by denying low interest loans for water repair. The city of Jackson is 80% Black, and GOP gubernatorial candidates competed for white voters by shorting the city through state Bond Commissions denials, or by refusing to bring the money up for a vote before the Commission.

The 2011 GOP primary for Lt. Governor was a campaign littered with race-baiting threats of merging majority-white Clinton Public Schools with majority Black Jackson Public School districts, in an effort to rally the white vote. Reeves, then state treasurer, and his opponent Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes, raced for the title of who could invest less in Mississippi. Hewes enjoyed describing Reeves as a spendthrift, claiming “Tate Reeves […] voted ‘Yes’ 99% of the time as a member of the bond commission.” Eager to prove himself a skinflint, particularly when it came to the majority-Black city of Jackson, Reeves appeared on conservative talk radio and pressed his record to host Paul Gallo on denying the city of Jackson much-needed low-interest loans by never bringing such loans up for a commission vote.

“[…] I’ve never voted against [Jackson bonds] because it’s never gotten to the bond commission because what we have done is we talk to the city of Jackson […] and if we are not comfortable […] we never bring it up for a vote.”

After citywide water failures made international news, Reeves attempted to claim responsibility for $200 million the city received from the state, but reports showed most of that money came from a fund fed by city of Jackson residents through a 1% sales tax that residents approved years ago.

NAACP President, Derrick Johnson, described efforts to make the city a punching bag as a “statewide” contest.

“The state of Mississippi took a course of action that was very familiar: to blame those who have been injured for their injuries, without taking any responsibility for the cause of those individuals’ injuries,” Johnson said in a recent community meeting in North Jackson.

Johnson added that citywide water failures last August were predictable, and he characterized legislative indifference as “an intentionality by the state to starve the city of resources over a matter of decades.” He said the years-long effort served to help swell Jackson’s parasitic suburban communities, who are disproportionately represented by white legislative leadership.

But now, after years of persistent neglect by the Republican-led state government, the Biden administration is picking up the slack. The U.S. Congress apportioned $600 million to pay for water repairs and redevelopment as part of a $1.7 trillion spending package signed by the administration in December.

That package, which was rejected by every GOP-member of the Mississippi delegation except U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, joins an additional $120 million from the 2022 Water and Resource Development Act and $71 million in pandemic-related incentives from the American Rescue Plan Act. The city administration and the mayor will not get to spend the nearly $800 million total without significant oversight, however.

Lumumba said the city will abide by a Department of Justice order putting The Environmental Protection Agency over expenditure management. Third party administrator, Ted Henifin, is also supervising contract purchases and repair priorities. Henifin must, in turn, answer to the DOJ and federal oversight.

The influx of federal cash does not end all of Jackson’s water woes. The city must eventually rehabilitate its wastewater treatment plant, which is currently out of U.S. Department of Environmental Quality compliance over the amount of waste it releases back into the Pearl River. When including significant treatment plant repairs the city is facing a whopping $2 billion in needed infrastructure costs.

Lumumba said this month that he asked Henifin to “provide a timeline and implementation plan” for public purview. Repair efforts will prioritize pipes in South Jackson, and additional sectors of the city that have traditionally housed high-minority populations. Many of these same areas have cheaper, smaller water pipes of insufficient capacity, likely due to the preferences of past mayoral administrations that focused investment on wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Many of these same underserved areas lose all access to water when citywide pressure drops, while historically wealthier neighborhoods more frequently experience only a pressure decrease.

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