Lumumba pleads for president’s help as state emergency over water winds down

Published: Nov. 8, 2022 at 10:51 AM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is pleading for federal help for Jackson’s beleaguered water system, just days before the state’s emergency declaration is set to expire.

In a November 3 letter to President Joe Biden, the mayor implored him for help, citing Gov. Tate Reeves’ decision to pull out of Jackson on November 22.

Among requests, the mayor is asking for direct financial assistance to help pay for the one-year operations and management contract the city is currently seeking, as well as an extension of the federal emergency declaration governing the water system.

“The letter was to express gratitude, but also to ask for additional assistance,” Lumumba told WLBT. “The impression that should be gleaned is that the city does not have the funding in order to bring us to the sustainable place where we need to be with our water treatment facility.”

Jackson is facing an estimated $1 billion in water needs, according to city estimates. Jackson, meanwhile, is still experiencing shortfalls in water/sewer billing revenues, bringing in $8.8 million less than it projected as part of the 2022 fiscal year budget.

Those shortfalls aside, the city continues to dig out of a major water crisis and is currently seeking a vendor to take over management of its water system once the state declaration ends. The contract will be for one year, with possible options to extend, and will be paid for with city dollars.

However, at a press conference on Monday, Lumumba offered few details on how the city would pay for a contract, telling reporters, “I will never say that every dollar is accounted for, because, you know, you can never know how things increase.”

He also wouldn’t say how much he expects the contract to cost, saying revealing that information could impact negotiations with potential vendors.

In his letter to the president, Lumumba suggests the city receive direct federal assistance to help defray contract costs, funds that would go to the Delta Regional Authority, “which would serve as the fiscal agent, recipient of federal funds, and payor of those funds to the selected operations and maintenance vendor.”

The mayor also asks Biden to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help winterize and repair main leaks in the city’s distribution system “as soon as possible, to reduce current... water losses and ensure continuous service.”

Main breaks have been a major source of water loss during colder winters, including in 2018, when 301 water main ruptures occurred across Jackson. The most recent water crisis, though, occurred when equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Plant led to tens of thousands of people being without water.

Congress recently approved giving the agency $20 million specifically to help Jackson water.

Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency over the city’s water system in late August, in response to the equipment failures at Curtis and deployed several state agencies to distribute water and help stabilize the system. That state of emergency is slated to end on November 22.

A federal emergency declaration also is in place. That declaration is slated to expire on November 29.

Lumumba tells the president that he asked Reeves to seek an extension of the federal declaration, but the governor refused his request.

He explains that extending the federal emergency would allow the federal government to supplement the work currently being done by the state and ensure the system’s stability until a third-party management firm is in place.

“The intention... was to provide ample time for [a] knowledge transfer to an operations and maintenance contractor while ensuring the stabilization and winterization of the system - as we are approaching subfreezing temperatures here in Jackson,” he wrote.

Lumumba reached out to the governor’s office seeking an extension of the declaration on October 13. While Reeves never responded to that request, he did extend the state’s emergency declaration to November 22.

Reeves said doing so gives the state and city more time to transition the water system to private management. Under the emergency order, the city’s system is being managed by a team of state and federal leaders. However, the governor said he would not extend the emergency beyond that point.

“Therefore, it is imperative that the City of Jackson receive immediate and direct federal assistance,” the mayor wrote.

With both emergency declarations winding down, the city and the state continue to squabble over who will manage Jackson’s water system once the state pulls out.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency issued a request for qualifications in mid-October, seeking a contractor to take over operations and maintenance.

Jackson, meanwhile, issued a separate request for proposals the following week advertising for the same services. The mayor said the city issued its request after not getting a say in how the state’s RFQ was drawn up.

RFQs and RFPs are two ways governments advertise for contractors for professional services. Responses to the requests are reviewed and contracts are awarded based on those evaluations.

Responses to MEMA and Jackson’s advertisements were due November 7, giving each entity a little more than two weeks to evaluate them and execute a contract.

Provisions of both requests state that the contractor would be awarded a 12-month deal to oversee the city’s two water treatment plants, well systems and elevated storage tanks, and that the city is responsible for paying for them.

Lumumba maintains the city will not recognize any contractor chosen by the state, citing the payment provision. “The city, under both documents is anticipated to pay the costs,” he said Monday. “And, so, that would have to be approved by me and the council.”

Nevertheless, state leaders say they are pushing forward with hiring a firm, and as of Tuesday, were still reviewing contractor qualifications. At the same time, the city also was moving ahead, with the mayor saying he’s “prayerful” the administration can fill the management position by November 22.

Even if a company is hired, the mayor says federal assistance is still needed, including funds to help defray the contract’s costs. Lumumba would not say how the contract would be paid for, nor did he say the city had identified every dollar it needed for the work.

The mayor ended his letter on a personal note, adding that Biden’s help is “vital” in ensuring the city can continue to provide clean drinking water to its residents.

“After our discussion at the beginning of the crisis, you assured me that you would do all you could to help the residents of Jackson, and I believe you to be a man of your word,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate your consideration of these requests, which are vital to the protection of safe drinking water and the public health of the residents of Jackson.”

Reeves’ office declined multiple requests for comment.

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