Congress launches inquiry into state's 'disinvestment' in Jackson water

Government and Politics

October 18, 2022

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – Two Congressional committees are looking into what they say is a history of disinvestment into Jackson’s water system, including reports that Gov. Tate Reeves intentionally blocked the city from receiving money for infrastructure repairs over the years.

Monday, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to Reeves seeking information on how the state plans to distribute billions of dollars in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help cities address infrastructure needs.

Thomspon and Maloney are chairs of the House Committee on Homeland Security and House Committee on Oversight and Reform, respectively.

The two are also urging the governor to immediately direct funding to the city of Jackson to help address its water problems, drawing parallels to the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“We urge you to take action to protect the health and safety of Jackson residents and direct funding to Jackson immediately to fix this life and death issue,” the two wrote. “This funding must be sustained to ensure that a safe and dependable drinking water system endures, especially in the face of climate change that will put even more stress on the city’s water infrastructure.”

The state received $10 billion in federal funding from ARPA and BIL, the letter states, including $429 million for water projects.

The letter comes about a month after the NAACP filed a complaint with EPA seeking a civil rights investigation into the same matter.

It also comes about a month and a half after the state took over operations at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, after equipment failures there, left tens of thousands of people with little to no running water.

“Approximately 180,000 people living in the affected area were forced to rely on bottled water, costing some residents as much as $200 a month,” the chairs wrote. “Others, unable to reach water distribution sites or boil tap water, were left with no choice but to drink untreated water. This water was not only unsafe to drink but may have been dangerous even for bathing.”

The representatives are seeking various pieces of data, including, a breakdown of the localities, utilities and other entities that have received or will receive allocations from the state’s ARPA or BIL funds “to repair, harden or otherwise invest in drinking water systems.”

The two also are asking for a “detailed description of the ‘additional layer of review for applications from the city of Jackson,’” the basis for the additional review, and the racial demographics of the cities impacted by the rule.

During the 2022 session, lawmakers established the Mississippi Municipality and County Water Infrastructure Act (MCWI), a grant program that would match cities and counties dollar-for-dollar on water and sewer infrastructure improvements made using their ARPA allocations.

Jackson is eligible to apply for the match. However, legislation setting up the program singled out the capital city, requiring that any money it receives go into a special account managed by the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

Thompson and Maloney are interested in finding out more about that “burdensome hurdle” as well as others, such as requirements in MCWI that “may limit funding Jackson receives compared to other locales, despite Jackson’s much greater need.”

The two were referring to MCWI’s grant scoring system, which takes into consideration household income, possible population decline and unemployment rates.

According to a copy of the scoring matrix found on the state’s website, applicants can receive up to 24 points based on the proposed project’s impact on “disadvantaged and overburdened communities.”

18 of those 24 points are based on an area’s median household income. The lower the income, the higher the score.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Jackson’s median household income is $40,064 a year, compared to $46,511 for the state.

Based on those figures, Jackson would be eligible for just 3 of the 18 points available.

MCWI scoring matrix provides 24 points for impact projects have on disadvantaged communities.(WLBT)

The remaining six points are determined by an area’s population growth/decline between 2015 and 2020, its unemployment rate, and the percentage of household income goes to water/sewer rates.

Thompson and Maloney also question the program in its entirety, saying there’s no way Jackson would receive enough to fund all of its infrastructure needs.

“The cost of necessary maintenance to Jackson’s water distribution system is forecasted to be as high as $1 billion,” they write. “Under the matching formula Mississippi adopted… Jackson would directly receive, at most $84 million.”

In September, Jackson submitted applications for more than $35.6 million in matching funds, which would give the city a total of $71 million for water/sewer work.

The amount would cover numerous immediate needs at Curtis, which the city estimates run between $16 million and $21 million.

ARPA aside, Congressional leaders raised concerns about how Mississippi plans to use its BIL money, including a decision to limit state revolving loan forgiveness to $500,000.

State revolving loan funds are federally funded loans that municipalities can apply for to address water and sewer needs.

Since 2016, the city has received $79.8 million in SRF and emergency loans through the Mississippi State Department of Health and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, funds that will ultimately have to be repaid.

While Jackson can receive up to $500,000 in forgiveness under the state’s current plant, federal representatives say cities like Jackson initially weren’t going to be eligible for that.

“We understand that Mississippi initially planned to bar communities of more than 4,000 people from competing for additional funding from [BIL]. After officials from Jackson and other impacted communities raised concerns, the revised funding formula set a limit, which a loan recipient may receive,” the two wrote. “This arbitrary cap makes it much harder for Jackson to obtain the funding… needed to address its water system.”

We have reached out to Gov. Tate Reeves’ office and are awaiting a response. We will update the story when it is provided.