JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Water is flowing again in most of Mississippi’s capital city. This is a stark contrast to…
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Water is flowing again in most of Mississippi’s capital city.
It’s a stark contrast to a year ago, when Jackson’s 150,000 residents could never be sure what, if anything, would flow from their faucets when they needed a drink, a shower or a toilet flush. The majority-black city also faced occasional warnings that its water might be contaminated and needed to be boiled, and people had to queue for fresh water.
The turnaround has been led by Ted Henifin, a veteran utility manager named last year to interim head of the long-troubled water system. He has faced pushback from some residents due to lingering concerns about water quality, legal hurdles to his plan to ensure low-income people don’t pay more for water , and expanded its scope to include repairing the sewer system.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, he offered insight into the latest chapter in a saga that mixes elements of racial disparity, crumbling infrastructure and partisan politics.
RESTARTING THE SYSTEM
Last August and September, infrastructure failures caused many people in Jackson to go days and weeks without running water. A federal judge brought Henifin from Virginia in December.
Since then, he claims to have laid the foundations for an improved water network.
“The system functions like what I consider a normal water supply system for a city of 150,000 people,” Henifin said. “Going forward, we should no longer have citywide boil water advisories.”
Daily efforts have included repairing broken valves and pipes from where gallons of wasted water once flowed into streams and fire hydrants.
WATER PRICING — WHO PAYS?
One of Henifin’s top priorities has been to increase Jackson’s revenue from the water system without raising rates in a city where about a quarter of the population lives in poverty. He initially launched a plan to price water based on property values in order to shift the burden away from Jackson’s poorest residents.
A few months later, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law requiring that water be billed based on personal consumption, not other factors like property values. Henifin said it has adapted to this new legal reality with a proposal that it will share before the end of the year. He declined to provide details about the proposal because he still has to have it handled by city officials. But he thinks it addresses the concerns of the Democratic-led city and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working within the confines of this law and I think we’ve put together a proposal,” Henifin said. “We talked to the state about it to make sure we don’t find ourselves faced with a similar situation.”
“I think other utilities across the country will look closely at the proposal as a new method to help lower socio-economic groups afford water,” he said. declared.
Henifin said the city’s water bill collection rate increased from 56% in the second quarter to more than 62% in the third quarter. “People vote with their money,” he said.
Upon arrival, Henifin told the AP he was racing to finish his work in a year or less. Today, it has decided to manage the water and sewer networks for up to four years.
The extended deadline will allow it to implement more of the $600 million in federal funds allocated to help the city’s water system, most of which has yet to be spent. He also said he feels more connected to the community than when he first moved to Jackson.
“The small staff that we’ve created, the contractors that have stepped up, I just can’t live without them,” Henifin said.
REACTION OF ACTIVISTS
In September, activist groups who want more say in water system reforms asked to join a federal lawsuit against the city for violating drinking water standards.
Henifin said activists do not speak for most of the city’s residents.
“It is very frustrating to think that in any setting, whether in Jackson or another national conversation in another city, a small group of well-connected and organized people can pose as a representative of the community “, said Henifin. .
He said public comments reviewed by the Justice Department have been overwhelmingly favorable. Support extends across racial lines, he said.
“I hear this in the community everywhere,” Henifin said. “When these people come up to me in the street, black and white, they say, ‘You’re doing a great job, don’t listen to that noise.'”
One of the groups suing for more control is the People’s Advocacy Institute. The top executive listed on GuideStar, a news service for U.S. nonprofit organizations, is Candace Abdul-Tawwab. She is married to Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, the former chief experience officer of Jackson Water, Henifin, who was fired, he said.
“It just didn’t work. It kind of makes you wonder what the motivation is there,” Henifin said.
Candace Abdul-Tawwab and the People’s Advocacy Institute did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
HIS NEXT PROFIT: STRUGGLES IN THE SEWERS
Henifin’s legal authority was extended to the city’s sewer system.
The drinking water order was put in place last November under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The sewer ordinance took effect in late September under the Clean Water Act. Henifin plans to manage both over a four-year period.
“The sewer ordinance has a term of four years, with the expectation that at the end of the fourth year the city will return under a consent decree. They made no real progress under the consent decree put in place in 2013, so the judge suspended the requirements of the decree,” Henifin said. “This is different from the water decree, which has no end date. It’s over when the judge considers that the system is stable. The water ordinance may move to longer-term judicial review, but we don’t really know what the future holds.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-reported issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.
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