New plan for Jackson water operations brings ray of hope

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New water administrator Ted Henifin and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. (Advocate photo by Joshua Martin)

The Jackson City Council and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba anticipate a well-run water operations system under a court-approved third-party administrator who was scheduled to begin work Tuesday with no further direct control of either state or federal operators.

It gets even better. The people of Jackson will not be responsible for paying the salary of the new administrator and water rates will not increase to any noticeable degree, the new man-in-charge said. 

New administrator Ted Henifin has 40 years of experience in water operations and management. He was general manager of the Hamburg, VA Sanitation District for 15 years until his retirement in February. Over 1.8 million people in southeastern Virginia – about 20 percent of the state’s total population – were served by the Hamburg waste-water system under his management.

Henifin said that before accepting the position as an O&M administrator, he insisted that the City of Jackson should not be responsible for his pay. The feds questioned this approach but gave in to his request.  Henifin will be paid $400,000 annually, the Associated Press reported.

“I don’t feel that Jackson will need to raise its rates,” he said. “My gut says Jackson, like almost every other large core city in the United States, can’t afford to put any more burden on the lower socioeconomic residents of their city to pay for water. That is my inclination.”

NOT A TAKEOVER

“This is not a takeover, but an agreement,” Lumumba said Monday. “The City of Jackson has never been opposed to inviting a third party to the table.”

The interim order is for one year under the agreement, Lumumba said. 

“We’re going to try to keep Ted as long as we can,” the mayor said. “We anticipate a working relationship with the federal government that is beyond a year.”

Henifin jokingly said that, as an older man, he could not be expected to last too long.

“The goal is to get the system back to a sustainable place where it’s providing consistent[ly] safe, high quality drinking water that’s affordable for everyone,” he said. “We’re in great shape as far as this transition is concerned.”

REEVES’ RESENTMENT

Governor Tate Reeves continued in his disparagement of the mayor and the people of Jackson, even while consenting to the new plan.

“It is excellent news for anyone who cares about the people of Jackson that the mayor will no longer be overseeing the city’s water system,” Reeves said in a mean and specious press statement last week. “It is now out of the city’s control and will be overseen by a federal court.”

While the Justice Department and EPA have worked with the City over the past years to solve its recurring and intermittent water delivery problems, the two agencies filed a complaint against the city alleging that it had failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to the system’s customers.

“The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights,” Attorney Merrick B. Garland said in a November 29 statement. “Together, with our partners at EPA, we will continue to seek justice for the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. And we will continue to prioritize cases in the communities most burdened by environmental harm.”

BUILD CAPACITY

Henifin said his focus with the Water Alliance was to find ways that small, disadvantaged communities can gain access to the bipartisan infrastructure funding made available to states and larger cities by the federal government. Since the state of Mississippi has been in charge of the infrastructure funding under the State Revolving Loan Fund program, Jackson and many of the smaller communities have been denied access to such funds. 

“The whole idea was to build capacity in small communities,” Henifin said. 

The EPA announced Oct. 20 that it had started a civil rights investigation into whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund improvements for its failing water system.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan has visited the City of Jackson four times in two years as he pursues his Journey for Justice plan to assist smaller municipalities faced with economic and racial inequities in the quest for federal infrastructure development funds.

“Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to spend time with people on the ground in Jackson – many who’ve struggled with access to safe and reliable water for years,” Regan said in the same November 29 statement released by the attorney general. “I pledged that EPA would do everything in its power to ensure the people of Jackson have clean and dependable water, now and into the future. While there is much more work ahead, the Justice Department’s action marks a critical moment on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents. I’m grateful to the attorney general for his partnership and commitment to this shared vision.”

New water operations administrator Ted Henifin was scheduled to be introduced to Jackson stakeholders and residents at a Town Hall meeting Wednesday, Dec. 7, at Forest Hill High School.

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New plan for Jackson water operations brings ray of hope

By Earnest McBride
December 8, 2022