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Jackson’s water system is at the mercy of wasted rhetoric

JACKSON, Miss. – Years before people in Jackson were recently was left without a water supply Within days, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves claimed he had helped block money to repair the capital’s water supply system.

Reeves, a Republican, blames mismanagement at the city level for Jackson’s water crisis. The city’s recent water supply problems are far from the first, and they stemmed from deteriorating infrastructure beyond a single water treatment plant. The EPA said the city has issued 300 boil water notices in the past two years.

As Reeves climbed the political ladder in Mississippi, he cited his opposition to capital bailouts as evidence of his fiscal conservatism. Jackson-area lawmakers say the troubled water system is one example of Jackson’s status as a political punching bag for Republican officials who control the Legislature and state bond commission.

“We operate under the golden rule,” said Democratic Sen. John Horne of Jackson. “And the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”

In Jackson, 80% of residents are black and 25% live in poverty. Repeated breakdowns made it unsafe for people to drink from the tap, brush their teeth and wash dishes without first boiling the water. At a September press conference, Reeves said water was restored to much of the city only after the state “stepped in” to provide emergency repairs. He also said he doesn’t expect the Legislature to approve additional longs for Jackson’s water system.

Some Jackson residents are facing the specter of another weather-induced water outage. “Winter is coming,” said Brooke Floyd, a local activist. “He says everything is fixed. But it’s not fixed.”

The water supply was also cut off in parts of the city due to the 2010 winter storm. By June 2011, Reeves was locked in the Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor. While the Tea Party pushed government spending to the center of the political debate, his opponent accused him of agreeing to an increase in bond debt.

With Election Day just weeks away, Reeves — who was state treasurer — appeared on a conservative talk radio show to push his record as a tough “watchdog” over borrowing-seeking state lawmakers. The host, Paul Gallo, wanted to know why Reeves voted to approve most of the bond projects as a member of the state bond commission. His poll ratings don’t tell the whole story, Reeves said. For example, take the millions in bonds the city requested to repair its crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.

“I never voted against it because it never got to the Bond Commission. We are talking to the city of Jackson,” Reeves said. “If we’re not comfortable, we never put it to a vote.”

The bond commission decided not to consider issuing bonds for Jackson water projects that were authorized by the Legislature, Reeves said.

“Let’s just say that there is economic development in a city that doesn’t have a lot of political power,” Gallo replied. “Can the bond commission just refuse to accept it? … Isn’t that the same as a negative vote?”

“It’s the same as a no vote,” Reeves said.

Most years, the Legislature authorizes projects in a single measure, known in lawmakers’ parlance as a “major bond law.” The bond commission, made up of the governor, attorney general and state treasurer, then votes on whether to issue the bonds.

The commission issues most of the bonds that are put up for a vote. In 2011, Reeves’ top opponent said Reeves voted during his two terms as state treasurer to approve too much debt. But some bonds don’t come up for a vote or are delayed, such as those proposed for Jackson’s water and sewer improvements.

When asked at a September news conference, Reeves said that he remembers what happened in 2010, that the city never prepared the necessary documents to obtain the water bonds authorized by the Legislature. A document City leaders prepared a proposal in 2010 asking the state for $13.5 million in bonds to upgrade the downtown water system, records obtained by The Associated Press show. The Legislature later approved a $6 million midget bond offering.

But after the Legislature’s approval, Reeves and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour initially failed to include the city’s water project in state bonds to be issued in the fall of 2010.

The Legislature added requirements to the bond application, according to former Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration spokeswoman Kim Wiggins Jackson Free Press was an “exclusive” to Jackson at the time. In order for his application to be approved, Reeves said the city would have to answer a number of questions about how the money would be spent.

Barbour and Reeves later relented and voted to approve the bonds after city officials made a commitment that included financing the projects through low-interest loans rather than the interest-free loans mandated by law.

The governor’s office told the AP that as state treasurer, Reeves ultimately voted to approve the bonds. But in a June 2011 Gallo interview, he said the Bond Commission refused to put Jackson’s water bond on the agenda.

“We make a decision before it goes on the agenda, so there’s no actual vote,” Reeves said.

Before the Bond Commission gets involved, bond bills proposed by Jackson-area lawmakers often fail to make it out of the Legislature.

In the 2022 legislative session, a account which would have authorized $4 million in bonds for Jackson water and sewer improvements, died in committee. Another would allocate money to build a separate water supply system for Jackson State University, which were to bring temporary latrines and portable showers in August, when discolored water flowed through faucets in dormitories.

At another press conference in September, Reeves said the state has allocated $200 million to Jackson over the past few years to address water issues. But the numbers Reeves’ office gave Jackson to the TV station WLBT-TV includes revenue from measures such as a 1% sales tax paid only by people who shop in Jackson.

“This is not money coming from the state of Mississippi,” said Democratic Rep. Earl Banks of Jackson. “This is money that comes from the citizens of Jackson and the people who do business in the city of Jackson.”

With a declining population, Jackson’s tax base is eroding, and in 2014 voters overwhelmingly approved a 1% local sales tax for infrastructure repairs. Jackson City Council asked for legislative approval next election would double the local tax to 2 cents on the dollar. Sales Tax Increase Bill died in the 2021 legislative session.

Reeves said Jackson needed to fix him problems with the billing system before “asking everyone else to raise more money.”

Efforts to attract private investment by keeping taxes low have long been central to Reeves’ economic thinking.

Government does not create jobs; it simply “creates an environment that encourages the private sector to invest capital,” Reeves told the Gallo in a 2011 interview. “And the infrastructure around that is a function of government.”

Reeves said the government has a role to play in building infrastructure to accelerate development. Those economic principles were not applied to Jackson, some officials said.

“Look, we can, we can bury our heads in the sand and say, ‘Jackson’s problem is not our problem,'” Horn said. “But when you hear there’s no water and you can’t brush your teeth or cry, you cross Mississippi off the list.”

___

Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press Corporation/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.



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Jackson’s water system is at the mercy of wasted rhetoric

JACKSON, Miss. – Years before people in Jackson were recently was left without a water supply Within days, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves claimed he had helped block money to repair the capital’s water supply system.

Reeves, a Republican, blames mismanagement at the city level for Jackson’s water crisis. The city’s recent water supply problems are far from the first, and they stemmed from deteriorating infrastructure beyond a single water treatment plant. The EPA said the city has issued 300 boil water notices in the past two years.

As Reeves climbed the political ladder in Mississippi, he cited his opposition to capital bailouts as evidence of his fiscal conservatism. Jackson-area lawmakers say the troubled water system is one example of Jackson’s status as a political punching bag for Republican officials who control the Legislature and state bond commission.

“We operate under the golden rule,” said Democratic Sen. John Horne of Jackson. “And the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”

In Jackson, 80% of residents are black and 25% live in poverty. Repeated breakdowns made it unsafe for people to drink from the tap, brush their teeth and wash dishes without first boiling the water. At a September press conference, Reeves said water was restored to much of the city only after the state “stepped in” to provide emergency repairs. He also said he doesn’t expect the Legislature to approve additional longs for Jackson’s water system.

Some Jackson residents are facing the specter of another weather-induced water outage. “Winter is coming,” said Brooke Floyd, a local activist. “He says everything is fixed. But it’s not fixed.”

The water supply was also cut off in parts of the city due to the 2010 winter storm. By June 2011, Reeves was locked in the Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor. While the Tea Party pushed government spending to the center of the political debate, his opponent accused him of agreeing to an increase in bond debt.

With Election Day just weeks away, Reeves — who was state treasurer — appeared on a conservative talk radio show to push his record as a tough “watchdog” over borrowing-seeking state lawmakers. The host, Paul Gallo, wanted to know why Reeves voted to approve most of the bond projects as a member of the state bond commission. His poll ratings don’t tell the whole story, Reeves said. For example, take the millions in bonds the city requested to repair its crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.

“I never voted against it because it never got to the Bond Commission. We are talking to the city of Jackson,” Reeves said. “If we’re not comfortable, we never put it to a vote.”

The bond commission decided not to consider issuing bonds for Jackson water projects that were authorized by the Legislature, Reeves said.

“Let’s just say that there is economic development in a city that doesn’t have a lot of political power,” Gallo replied. “Can the bond commission just refuse to accept it? … Isn’t that the same as a negative vote?”

“It’s the same as a no vote,” Reeves said.

Most years, the Legislature authorizes projects in a single measure, known in lawmakers’ parlance as a “major bond law.” The bond commission, made up of the governor, attorney general and state treasurer, then votes on whether to issue the bonds.

The commission issues most of the bonds that are put up for a vote. In 2011, Reeves’ top opponent said Reeves voted during his two terms as state treasurer to approve too much debt. But some bonds don’t come up for a vote or are delayed, such as those proposed for Jackson’s water and sewer improvements.

When asked at a September news conference, Reeves said that he remembers what happened in 2010, that the city never prepared the necessary documents to obtain the water bonds authorized by the Legislature. A document City leaders prepared a proposal in 2010 asking the state for $13.5 million in bonds to upgrade the downtown water system, records obtained by The Associated Press show. The Legislature later approved a $6 million midget bond offering.

But after the Legislature’s approval, Reeves and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour initially failed to include the city’s water project in state bonds to be issued in the fall of 2010.

The Legislature added requirements to the bond application, according to former Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration spokeswoman Kim Wiggins Jackson Free Press was an “exclusive” to Jackson at the time. In order for his application to be approved, Reeves said the city would have to answer a number of questions about how the money would be spent.

Barbour and Reeves later relented and voted to approve the bonds after city officials made a commitment that included financing the projects through low-interest loans rather than the interest-free loans mandated by law.

The governor’s office told the AP that as state treasurer, Reeves ultimately voted to approve the bonds. But in a June 2011 Gallo interview, he said the Bond Commission refused to put Jackson’s water bond on the agenda.

“We make a decision before it goes on the agenda, so there’s no actual vote,” Reeves said.

Before the Bond Commission gets involved, bond bills proposed by Jackson-area lawmakers often fail to make it out of the Legislature.

In the 2022 legislative session, a account which would have authorized $4 million in bonds for Jackson water and sewer improvements, died in committee. Another would allocate money to build a separate water supply system for Jackson State University, which were to bring temporary latrines and portable showers in August, when discolored water flowed through faucets in dormitories.

At another press conference in September, Reeves said the state has allocated $200 million to Jackson over the past few years to address water issues. But the numbers Reeves’ office gave Jackson to the TV station WLBT-TV includes revenue from measures such as a 1% sales tax paid only by people who shop in Jackson.

“This is not money coming from the state of Mississippi,” said Democratic Rep. Earl Banks of Jackson. “This is money that comes from the citizens of Jackson and the people who do business in the city of Jackson.”

With a declining population, Jackson’s tax base is eroding, and in 2014 voters overwhelmingly approved a 1% local sales tax for infrastructure repairs. Jackson City Council asked for legislative approval next election would double the local tax to 2 cents on the dollar. Sales Tax Increase Bill died in the 2021 legislative session.

Reeves said Jackson needed to fix him problems with the billing system before “asking everyone else to raise more money.”

Efforts to attract private investment by keeping taxes low have long been central to Reeves’ economic thinking.

Government does not create jobs; it simply “creates an environment that encourages the private sector to invest capital,” Reeves told the Gallo in a 2011 interview. “And the infrastructure around that is a function of government.”

Reeves said the government has a role to play in building infrastructure to accelerate development. Those economic principles were not applied to Jackson, some officials said.

“Look, we can, we can bury our heads in the sand and say, ‘Jackson’s problem is not our problem,'” Horn said. “But when you hear there’s no water and you can’t brush your teeth or cry, you cross Mississippi off the list.”

___

Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press Corporation/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.



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