JACKSON, Miss. — The freeze of early 2021 wasn’t the origin of Jackson, Mississippi’s water system collapse. But the winter storm introduced the country to Jackson’s aging and improperly maintained pipes and water plants, which failed and left residents without clean water for over a month.
The crisis surged back in the summer of 2022, leaving residents without clean water for two months and drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoning scandal: https://new7days.s3.amazonaws.com/kurt.mp4 , another banner example of America’s ruinous infrastructure systems. Here, as in Flint, the federal government stepped in: In November, the Department of Justice appointed a federal manager to take control of the beleaguered utility, and less than a month later, Congress approved $600 million exclusively for the city’s water system.
But the rescue effort is already running up against the realities of local politics, reflecting historic tensions between Jackson and the rest of the state. For decades, state and city leaders have clashed over who should control local spending, services and infrastructure. Now, both the federal manager and the city’s mayor are warning that state politicians are attempting to take over Jackson’s water system, along with hundreds of millions in federal funds meant for repairing it.
At the heart of the feud is Senate Bill 2889, introduced in mid-January by a lawmaker who says his only goal is to ensure the Mississippi capital’s water system is restored.
“It reminds me of apartheid,” he said. “They dictate our leadership, put a military force over us and we’re just supposed to pay taxes to the king.”
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, whose office helped design the measure, strongly denied that attempts to divert federal funds were behind the legislation. After the news organizations asked Parker about some critics’ concerns, he and Hosemann agreed that the state should recoup none of the federal funds, and Parker pledged to introduce an amendment that would explicitly prohibit the use of the funds outside Jackson’s city limits.
Henifin was unmoved, saying he was concerned that amendments could be overwritten later, and that a regional utility was the wrong solution for Jackson in any case read more
The legislation would create a new regional water-authority board to oversee the system’s water, sewer and drainage systems. The governor and lieutenant governor would appoint a majority of the board. Over the years, state leaders including the current governor, Tate Reeves, have expressed skepticism about whether Jackson is capable of managing its own affairs. Federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, have also questioned the city’s management of its water and wastewater systems.
The latest move in the Legislature worries the manager, Ted Henifin, who says a regional authority could allow improvements and debt relief to flow out of Jackson and into suburban utilities that join the entity. “I believe the $600+ million in federal funding has created a monster in the Mississippi Legislature,” Henifin told the Mississippi Free Press and ProPublica in a written statement last week. A federal judge appointed Henifin to the position of interim third-party manager in late November.
Credit:Nick Judin/Mississippi Free Press
Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba built on Henifin’s critique Monday. “It is a colonial power taking over our city. It is plantation politics. I have not been shy in the ways that I have referenced this,” he said.
The mayor highlighted a litany of other proposed legislation that together would give Mississippi authority over segments of Jackson’s police and court systems. He called the legislative proposals a “unified attack” against the city’s autonomy.