JACKSON, Miss. -- Jackson's troubled water system could get a new set of owners under legislation advanced Tuesday by Republican lawmakers in Mississippi.
The bill would transfer ownership to a new public entity overseen by a nine-member board, the majority of which would be appointed by state leaders. Republicans control both houses of the Mississippi Legislature, as well as the governor's mansion. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, has said he wants the city to maintain control of its water.
Legislation sent from committee to the full Mississippi Senate is the state's latest response to a water crisis that has caused repeated outages in which many in the city of about 150,000 have gone days and weeks without water to drink, cook, bathe or flush toilets. The problems have also heaped financial strain on businesses.
“I have been in economic development meetings this year with people who have told me that they don’t maybe want to come to Mississippi because we don’t have any water here,” said Sen. David Parker, a Republican from Olive Branch. “So whether we like it or not, we’ve got a problem we need to act on here.”
The bill, introduced by Parker, would transfer water, wastewater and storm water services provided by Jackson to a new public utility district's “ownership, management and control” after an interim manager appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the water system concludes his work.
The Justice Department appointed Ted Henifin, a former public works director from Virginia, as the interim manager after it won a federal judge’s approval to carry out a rare intervention. Henifin said he plans to leave his position in one year or less, though the federal judge's order wouldn't require him to do so.
The proposed Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority would be established once a majority of a nine-member board is appointed. It would assume ownership of the water system when a federal court terminates Henifin's position.
Four appointments would be reserved for the Jackson mayor, but he would be required to “consult” with mayors of nearby Byram and Ridgeland on two of those appointments. The governor would make three appointments to the board, and the lieutenant governor would make two. All nine appointments would need to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Lumumba has said in the past that he wants the city to maintain ownership of the water system. A member of his staff said he was unavailable to comment Tuesday.
City and state officials have clashed in the past over the creation of government boards that have exerted some control over how Jackson spends its tax revenue and money raised from public bonds.
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 undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.