Siemens of Germany promised to be the answer to Jackson’s water billing and sewer system problems back in 2012 under the Harvey Johnson administration. But in less than a year, after signing the contract for $89.9 million, Siemens dropped out of the deal and left the city with a $282 million bond debt obligation and a broken down meter system that was beyond the city’s capacity to pay or repair.
The city sued Siemens and won a settlement of $90 million. But the city remains stuck with the $282 million bond service bill that has a final payment due in 2041.
Fast forward to October 2023, the city is under a new Stipulated Order for the city’s sewer system, signed onto by the EPA and the state of Mississippi. A number of Jackson households are faced with threats of having their water cut off with possible legal action taken against them by a water management and operation system that they have little or no understanding of.
Only 56 percent of household sewer/water billings were being paid on a regular basis, system manager Ted Henifin said. He said that over 7,000 properties in Jackson are using water without paying for it.
Henifin cautioned everyone, however, that even if the city collected 100 percent of the bills owed under its current system, the revenues would not be enough to operate and maintain the system.
Henifin, in his capacity as Interim Third-Party Manager (ITPM) in charge of both the water and sewer system, sent letters to all water customers on September 25 warning everyone to pay their past due bills or face having their water cut off. The city’s Water and Sewer Business Administration (WSBA) is now under a single command.
A major complaint of water customers has been the lack of consistency in the demand for payments. Some households claim they haven’t gotten a water/sewer bill in years. Another large segment of the water/sewer clients in the City of Jackson has been receiving “estimates” of their water/sewer usage since the Siemens debacle. Many others complain that they have received exorbitant bills that don’t reflect the actual household water and sewer uses.
In September 2020, the Jackson City Council approved hiring the PREO Group LLC to help draw up plans to “address all of the known, outstanding issues with the utility billing system” within 12 months.
The contract was for approximately $350,000 for the company’s senior project manager and project manager to be paid $205/hour and $186.50/hour respectively. Both were also reimbursed for travel, incidentals, and other personal expenses related to their work with the city.
The contractor at one point, however, created a problem with a sharp increase in water fees that sent some customers running to their council members and the mayor’s office.
One of the PREO vendors had changed their meter settings from cubic feet to gallons and sent the monthly costs skyrocketing. The company claimed that they discovered the error and brought the system back to normal.
Lee Richards was one of the customers facing an extremely high bill.
“I was paying like $80,” he said. “But it went up from $89 to $1,000. I don’t know if I have a leak somewhere, or I’m sharing water with somebody. I don’t know, but this ain’t right.”
Taking his complaint to the Water and Sewer Business Administration Office didn’t help his situation.
“Only thing they kept saying is the new meters they put in that made it so high,” he said.
Dana P. whose home is in West Jackson near Pecan Blvd. and J. R. Lynch St. has been receiving “estimated” charges for her water and sewer bill for nearly two years. Her water bills and the meter never match, she says.
“I have water bills in my possession that have the word ‘est.’ – estimate – on them. Nobody comes to read it. I had someone go out there and look at the meter. And the water meter serial number is vastly different from the serial number on the actual bill.”
Her water meter was installed in the past year, she says. She complains that she is being overcharged due to the low demand for water she has in her household and says the city has not sent out anyone to read the meter since it was installed.
She also says that the city has neglected its responsibility of keeping the surrounding drains and street gutters free of debris. She points to the fence that runs along the south of her property line. Just over the fence is a drainage ditch that has been filled in. One of the grates has the City of Jackson logo on it, she said.
“This is city property,” she says. “And you can see that the drainage ditch is on city property.
“When my mom moved in in 1978, this was a ditch. But the man who had a mechanic shop on Aberdeen Street, the next street over, filled the entire ditch in. As a result of that, just about every time there is a flash flood, my house floods. It’s because the City of Jackson has neglected their property here. Years ago, I called a reporter because of the flooding in the house. They sent out Alex Love, and he showed that the sewer drain on the other side of the street was filled to the top with dirt and debris. We’ve had to throw furniture away because the house flooded. We filed a claim with the city because of the damage they caused, but they denied our claim.”
“We had problems with stray dogs, stray cats, and dead rats partially eaten by cats, and other creatures. Only about a year or so ago, a rat ran up into my house from the ground outside.
“I just want the City of Jackson to come and rectify the situation here. If this is supposed to be a ditch, running from Aberdeen to Pecan Boulevard, they need to come and clean up their property.”
The attempt to install new meters in the Jackson water/sewer system has been a slow and often confusing process.
Despite repeated efforts to bring in new contractors to replace the old meters and to re-establish an accurate billing system, neither the City of Jackson nor the ITPM has gained success so far. There has not been a reliable metering or billing system in place since 2013.
One of the first major contracts signed by the city after Siemens’ departure was the 10-year contract with Veolia Environment, PLLC of Paris to take charge of the wastewater system.
As part of the contract, Veolia would be responsible for operating Jackson’s three wastewater treatment facilities (Savanna, Trahon, and Presidential Hills) with a combined capacity of treating 125 million gallons of wastewater per day. Veolia personnel was also responsible for the city’s 98 pumping stations and sludge disposal.
In May 2021, the city council approved a contract with Sustainability Partners to replace all the old meters, with the surprising announcement that the company would be responsible for supplying the meters and their installation. The city only had to pay a monthly fee of $5.61 per household to use the equipment. All the other costs were to be absorbed by the company.
Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote viewed this as a good proposition and voiced his enthusiasm.
“They’re paying for the equipment, the installation, and the maintenance, and we’re going to pay them on a monthly basis as long as we use that equipment,” Foote said. “We don’t have to take out millions of dollars in debt to put them in.”
This contract was in place before Ted Henifin was selected as the Interim Third Party Manager for Jackson water systems operations in November 2022.
STOP AND GO
In December 2022, Henifin ordered Sustainability Partners to stop work on the project to replace residential meters across the city. He said the meter boxes were installed too high and they needed to be fixed flush with the ground before work could move forward.
Henifin had also gotten caught up in a conflict with several state lawmakers who disliked his announced plan to base the cost of water on the value of the consumers’ property rather than attempt to use the dysfunctional metering system that was in place.
He announced in late 2022 that he would institute a billing system based on the property value of the household and not on the actual consumption by the home or business. With $50 being the median charge for a home valued under $100,000 and $150 being the highest charge for homes valued at more than $160,000. Businesses would be charged up to $600 per billing period.
That plan, however, was knocked down by renegade Democratic state representative Shanda Yates of northeast Jackson, the area of the city where most of the white Republicans live. Yates had jumped from the Democratic Party in her first year in the legislature and declared herself an Independent. She began submitting a number of bills that would prove harmful to Black Democratic interests to the delight of the majority Republican House.
Yates’ bill, H.B. 698, blocking the Henifin plan, was filed in the 2023 legislative session, along with a similar bill filed in the State Senate. It was signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves on April 14.
RETURN TO PARTNERSHIP
Henifin later reopened the partnership with Sustainability Partners (SP) and brought on board Carla Dazet as billing executive for JXN Water.
Dazet, a senior advisor with SP, is also referred to as the assistant Public Works manager for the City of Jackson. She also worked as staff assistant to the late U.S. senator Trent Lott.
The installation of new meters is 73 percent complete, according to the ITPM June 30 Quarterly Report. And the meters are reported performing at nearly a 97 percent success rate.