Bill would give Jackson relief from uncollected water bills
A bill that would give the City of Jackson greater flexibility in collecting contested and overdue water and sewer bills at the time of publication was awaiting Governor Tate Reeves’ signature.
The bill would allow the city to eliminate uncollected debt from its books, provided a customer has paid part of a disputed or overdue bill. As it stands, the city cannot write off outstanding debts because it is prohibited by law.
Jackson City Council member Virgi Lindsay from Ward 7 said the legislation was needed.
“If a house has been abandoned for a long time and there is no hope that anyone will be living there anytime soon and an unpaid water bill is hanging on that property, we need to keep it on our books,” she said, noting that uncollected debt can impact a city’s bond rating.
The bill applies not only to Jackson, but to any city in the state with a population of 150,000 or more.
The bill would allow a city to establish a program to settle disputed or overdue water and sewage customers’ accounts, taking into account a customer’s ability to pay the full amount of the disputed claim. or overdue.
The bill requires the mayor of a municipality, the municipal director of public works and the executive director of personnel of the Mississippi utilities to approve the rules and procedures of a program by July 1.
The bill would allow a municipality to stop collections on an invoice in the event of equipment, process or billing failure and errors due to unforeseen circumstances such as an extreme weather event, a declared disaster or an emergency or compulsory evacuation, but only to the extent that the client has not benefited from water or sewer services.
When it is determined that a customer cannot pay an overdue balance, a city must require a customer to pay a portion of the overdue amount before accounting adjustments can be made.
Ashby Foote, a member of Ward 1 city council, said the bill would empower the city to negotiate with customers unable to pay their water and sewer bills.
“I think this is a logical step in finding solutions for people who owe more than they can pay,” he said. “The focus isn’t just on writing, it’s about finding solutions for our clients who may find themselves in difficult situations.”
Foote said the city wanted to collect water and sewer debt that customers owe and the bill would help do that. “We don’t just want to let people get away with it,” he said.
Any utility that establishes a program is required to provide the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Mississippi utility staff with a detailed report by January 1, 2022.
The report would provide utility revenue collection, number of accounts deemed uncollectible, number of accounts participating in installment payment plans, number of overdue accounts and the effect on the program on utility revenue collection .
The report would also include details of the utility’s plan to address remaining contentious or overdue claims that have not been resolved, efforts to provide fair and accurate invoices to all customers, and reduce equipment failures, process failures and billing failures.
The bill provides that the executive director of personnel of the Mississippi utilities may enter into professional service contracts to ensure the success of such a program. The municipality-owned utility would be responsible for reimbursing Mississippi utility staff for contracts, which could not exceed $ 200,000 during the life of the program.
The city of Jackson suffered from water billing issues that date back to 2012 when the city invested $ 90 million in a new Siemens Industry metering and billing system, and it began to fail almost immediately. . Savings of about $ 122 million over 16 years have been predicted, but losses of up to $ 24 million per year in uncollected revenue for water and sewer have resulted.
The city settled with Siemens for about $ 90 million in 2020. About $ 8.7 million of the settlement is used to update the billing system.
The city’s problems are bigger than its billing problems, but extend to its water treatment system, water distribution system, sewage system and drainage system.
The exact way in which the necessary improvements will be financed has not been determined.
As part of its capital spending fund, the Legislature awarded Jackson $ 3 million for water repairs. This is far from the $ 47 million that the mayor asked the state.
The city is expected to receive $ 46.6 million in stimulus funds that could be used to improve water, sewage or broadband, said Charles Williams, Ph.D., director of public works for the city of Jackson. .
The Emergency Water Infrastructure Act, introduced by US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, would provide the city with assistance in the form of a combination of loans, loan forgiveness and grants. Funding for the legislation would come from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Economic Development Authority.
Hyde-Smith proposes to authorize $ 47 million under the Army Corps of Engineers Section 219 program, which would allow the agency to provide assistance in the design and construction of projects of environmental infrastructure.
The bill sets out specific provisions regarding underprivileged communities and natural disasters, which would provide Jackson with additional benefits from EPA Drinking Water State’s revolving loan programs. Likewise, Jackson would benefit from arrangements to use as much as $ 25 million in uncommitted EDA economic adjustment assistance grants to “eligible systems.”
President Joe Biden has unveiled a $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan that could potentially provide funding to improve Jackson’s infrastructure, but the details of the funding are yet to be determined.