Rep. Bennie Thompson Seeks $200 Million Federal Aid For Jackson Water System

By Nick Judin

Congressman Bennie Thompson is seeking up to $200 million in direct federal funding for the City of Jackson to address its beleaguered water system, potentially bypassing the State of Mississippi entirely.

POLITICO’s Annie Snider first reported the draft document, which contains language that would divert the money through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to the City of Jackson. Typically, federal funding for water systems is delivered through state revolving loans funds, or SRFs. These low-interest loans are managed at the state level and are limited in scope.

Earlier this month, Thompson excoriated state leadership for their management of the delivery of American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds in an interview with CNN’s Ana Cabrera. 

“The barrier is somehow our state officials feel that they know what’s best for local government. Jackson is the only local government that’s being treated differently from other local governments,” Thompson said. “Jackson is the capital. Everything revolves around the capital city, so it’s to everyone’s advantage for the capital city to work. And what we have is a reluctant office of the governor who’s decided that for whatever reason, Jackson would be treated differently.”

State and local officials agree that the total cost of shoring up the Jackson water system and fixing its vast and ancient distribution system will require roughly a $1 billion total investment.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has criticized Mississippi state leaders for excessive control over the City’s ability to seek funds for water system repair. Photo by Nick Judin

The ‘Paternalistic’ State

Rep. Thompson’s comments echo those of Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, who has often complained of the Mississippi Legislature’s “paternalistic” authority over infrastructure funds, both those derived from the federal government and from Jackson’s own citizens.

“We not only have to go through the regular proposals, but once that’s accepted, we have to go through (the Department of Finance and Administration),”  Lumumba said this April in an interview with Mississippi Today. He added that Jackson is the “only city to have commissions” to oversee state support.

City leaders, including former Mayor Harvey Johnson, have repeatedly criticized the composition of Jackson’s 1% Sales Tax Commission, which oversees the allocation of infrastructure funding derived from a one cent sales tax in the city. The City itself appoints only a minority of that commission’s members, with state leaders and the Chamber of Commerce appointing the rest.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, for his part, took credit on the part of the State for precisely this funding at a joint press conference with Lumumba and Environmental Protection Agency Director Michael Regan earlier this month.

“The state has spent about $200 million in the city over the last five or six years,” Reeves said then. The governor’s office later confirmed to WLBT that the governor was referring in part to $86.7 million obtained through Jackson’s own sales tax and $42 million the State sent to the City from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. 

Does Jackson Have A Plan?

Rep. Thompson’s attempt to secure direct funding for Jackson follows his own critical comments about Jackson leadership. With national attention focused on the Jackson water crisis, Thompson took to the media to question if Jackson had a suitable plan for extricating itself from the depths of infrastructure collapse.

He reiterated those comments in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press at the same joint press conference earlier this month.

“You have to identify what’s wrong with (the Jackson water system) and what’s required to fix it. It’s not complicated, but the owner of the systems should hire the professionals to say why it failed and what it takes to fix it … I look forward to getting it, it looks like we are closer to getting an understanding that resources are there,” Thompson said on Sept. 7. “But none of those resources are available without a plan.”

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson have both criticized the City of Jackson for what they describe as a lack of meaningful plans to address the city’s water crisis. Photo by Nick Judin

Thompson’s comments echo those of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who said during 2021’s acute phase of the Jackson water crisis that he had also yet to see a plan—meaning a concrete document that would place Jackson’s water treatment plants and massive distribution system back on track to functioning and solvency.

Thompson admitted at the Sept. 7 press event that he had not seen the City’s most recent master water plan from 2013, which identified numerous points of failure for the city’s water system overall. But after the Mississippi Free Press issued a public records request for documents showing the City’s plans for repairing the water system, the City did not include the nine-year-old document in its response. Instead, the City shared an assortment of documents that detailed various necessary repairs, but no solid master plan for overhauling the entire system.

Fully restoring Jackson’s main water treatment plant, O.B. Curtis, and eventually the City’s water system as a whole will require investment, not just in physical repairs and upgrades, but in staffing and management. That will incur ongoing costs that will necessitate continual investment and revenues to maintain.

Thompson’s proposal may address some of those needs as well. The draft language currently in place, Snider reported, also “allows the funds to be used for more than just for capital projects, where federal water infrastructure dollars are typically directed. It could also be used to relieve the city of prior water debt and to pay for operations and maintenance — line items that federal funding is not otherwise allowed to cover.”

This article was first published by Mississippi Free Press.

See the Mississippi Free Press’ full Jackson water-crisis coverage, starting in March 2021.