Jackson’s water emergency reveals dilemma for Biden
The OB Curtis water treatment plant is at the center of a decades-long debate over who is responsible for funding long-needed repairs. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said repairing the city’s water system could cost more than $1 billion.
Republican state leaders accused the city of mismanaging the facility, while Jackson officials said few cities could afford the kinds of expensive upgrades needed using only utility revenue and municipal funds. However, some elected Democrats, such as Rep. Bennie Thompsonalso expressed some frustration with the city.
For Biden, who has made helping these kinds of disadvantaged communities a priority, funneling money through state governments reluctant to cede control to the federal government presents a major hurdle, Mississippi advocates and officials say. . Jackson officials have complained that the state legislature has been too slow to distribute federal pandemic stimulus money to cities that need it, taking until April to pass the spending measures from that March 2021 relaunch.
“The federal government is going to have to find ways around these Republican-controlled governors and legislatures to get money into the hands of the cities that are going to be the stronghold of the Democratic Party,” said Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation. Jackson, an environmental and climate justice organization in Jackson.
“Mississippi exemplifies this in many ways,” said Akuno, who spoke by phone while scouring the Jackson area for water bottles as part of the emergency response effort. “But I think we’re kind of a canary in the coal mine for what’s to come for many municipalities facing similar infrastructure issues.”
Sen. Roger Osier (R-Miss.), who was one of 10 Republicans to join Senate Democrats in pass last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure act, told CNN the facility deteriorated in part because “there have been tax base issues with the decline of the population” in Jackson.
Still, he added, there’s “money in the pipeline,” with the $429 million Mississippi getting from the new bipartisan infrastructure law to upgrade water and sewage systems. But he said more federal help would be needed now to “save lives, homes and the future of our great city.”
Jackson is emblematic of the type of communities Biden has said he wants to help with his Justice40 initiative, which aims to provide federal dollars in areas long overlooked for federal investment. Many of these neighborhoods are communities of color that face greater socio-economic barriers due to racist practices, such as redlining.
The lack of investment in Jackson follows a familiar pattern seen in many predominantly black cities in the South, Midwest and other parts of the United States, said Joan Wesley, associate professor of community development and housing concentration at Jackson State University. Jackson’s infrastructure problems began decades earlier, as tens of thousands of white residents left for the suburbs.
Jackson is now 82% black and heavily Democratic — a blue dot in a dark red state with a Republican legislative supermajority and a governor. This created the feeling that he was overlooked by GOP state officials.
“Governments need to understand that they are governing for everyone and not just for a select group of people or their supporters,” said Wesley, who works on environmental justice issues on the Gulf Coast. “It just seems like it shakes that way. It certainly looks like that.
Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.
Environmental justice advocates have urged the Biden administration to devise creative ways to get dollars into places like Jackson. They fear a repeat of the episode when GOP governors refused incentives to expand Medicaid coverage under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The Bezos Earth Fund, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is funding a project led by three environmental justice organizations that will track federal investments, help communities prepare grant applications and establish a “quick strike” force. from lawyers targeting states that strangle funding. to cities, said Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
“Part of our job is also to make sure we’re keeping tabs on everything and that the state legislature absolutely knows we’re watching,” Wright said.. She is leading the effort with Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University.
Wright said too few local officials were even aware of Biden’s pledge to push investment to areas with high levels of pollution and economic distress. It also reveals a shortcoming for the Biden administration, she said: Simply repeating the president’s vow doesn’t necessarily translate to better results.
Most federal dollars flow first through state legislatures and governors that may not be aligned with the president’s goals, Wright noted. That means local communities must lobby state governments while navigating complex federal programs for grants that don’t have to go through state capitals.
“The money always seems to go to the white suburbs,” she added. “Sending money to Mississippi even to fix Jackson won’t happen unless there’s some oversight from the federal government.”
Changing these dynamics, Wesley said, “requires citizens to be ever vigilant,” which for Jackson represents a daunting task given the apparent racial and partisan divides in how the state distributes money.
Even Mississippi’s plan to spend federal stimulus dollars, approved in April, requires additional oversight of how Jackson improves its water and sewage systems — and includes a requirement unique to Jackson that it spend these funds by 2027.
“Things are hitting us twice,” Wesley said, referring to the double jeopardy of responding to a major flood and the drinking water crisis. “And I think, at least on the surface, it looks like the support that might come from the state isn’t coming as quickly as it should.”
The city’s water problems are also well known to federal officials. Wesley noted that EPA Administrator Michael Regan made these issues central to his visit to Jackson in November. David Maurstad, deputy associate administrator for federal insurance and mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told POLITICO it will take a concerted effort by the federal government to help Jackson recover from the “disaster of the flooding that exacerbated a problem that had existed…for a few years.”
But even the Democrats say federal officials haven’t been given enough information to fix Jackson’s water problem. Thompson said that although Jackson appealed for federal funding even before the crisis, the city had not provided key details to federal agencies about its plan to put the facility on solid footing.
“I know there is a water problem with the city of Jackson. But no one has shared the facts about the problem with me, as one of the representatives, and the remedy or the plan to fix it,” he said in an August 21 TV interview. “As soon as that happens, I think people will easily roll up their sleeves and do it.”
Republican leaders have outlined plans to create regional rather than municipal water systems to pool statewide revenue. Proponents argue it would generate money to fix Jackson’s system since his current tax base cannot raise funding.
But Akuno said it would cost Jackson autonomy over its public services, instead leaving management and oversight to state-appointed boards under some proposals being discussed.
“The subtext of this is ‘Black people don’t know how to handle it,'” Akuno said.