Funds to aid Jackson’s water system held up as governor rose

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) – Years before the people of Jackson were recently left without running water for several days, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves claimed to have helped block money to fund repairs to the capital’s water system .

Reeves, a Republican, blames city-level mismanagement for Jackson’s water crisis. The city’s recent water problems are far from its first, and they stem from decaying infrastructure beyond a water treatment plant. The EPA said the city had issued 300 boiling-water notices in the past two years.

As Reeves climbed Mississippi’s political ladder, he cited his rejection of financial support for the capital as evidence of his fiscal conservatism. Jackson-area lawmakers say the murky water system is an example of Jackson’s status as a political punching bag for Republican officials who control the Legislature and the state Bond Commission.

“We’re working by the golden rule here,” said Democratic Senator John Horhn von Jackson. “And the golden rule is: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

In Jackson, 80% of the residents are black and 25% live in poverty. Repeated mishaps made it unsafe for people to drink from their tap, brush their teeth and wash their dishes without first boiling the water. At a press conference in September, Reeves said water services were only restored to most parts of the city after the state “stepped in” to make emergency repairs. He also said he didn’t expect the Legislature to have to approve more debt for Jackson’s water system.

The specter of another weather-related water stop looms over some Jackson residents. “Winter is coming,” said Brooke Floyd, a local activist. ‘He says it’s fixed. But it’s not fixed.”

A winter storm in 2010 also cut water supplies to parts of the city. By June 2011, Reeves was involved in a Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor. When the Tea Party movement put government spending at the center of the political debate, his opponent berated him for approving the increase in bond debt.

Just weeks before Election Day, Reeves – who was the state treasurer – appeared on a conservative talk radio show to boost his track record as a miserly “watchdog” over money-hungry state legislators. The host, Paul Gallo, wanted to know why Reeves voted to approve most bond projects as a member of the state bond commission. His voting record didn’t tell the whole story, Reeves said. Take, for example, the millions of dollars in bonds the city requested to repair its ailing water and sanitation infrastructure.

“I never voted against because it never got through to the Bond Commission. We’re talking to the city of Jackson,” Reeves said. “If we’re not comfortable, we’ll never bring it to a vote.”

The Bond Commission has decided not to consider issuing bonds for Jackson water projects that have been approved by the Legislature, Reeves said.

“Let’s just say there is economic development in a city that doesn’t have much political power,” Gallo replied. “The Bond Commission can just refuse to record it? … Isn’t that the same as a negative vote?”

“It’s the same as a negative vote,” Reeves said.

Most years, the legislature approves projects in a grand act known in lawmakers’ parlance as “the great bond bill.” Then the bond commission – consisting of the governor, the attorney general and the state treasurer – votes on the issuance of the bonds.

The Commission issues most of the bonds that come to the vote. In 2011, Reeves’ main opponent said Reeves voted to approve too many debts during his two terms as Treasurer. However, some bonds will not be voted on or will be delayed, such as those proposed for Jackson’s water and sanitation improvements.

Responding to questions at a press conference in September, Reeves said his memory of the events of 2010 was that the city never prepared the paperwork needed to obtain water bonds approved by the Legislature. A document seen by The Associated Press shows that city leaders drafted a proposal in 2010 asking for $13.5 million in bonds from the state to upgrade the downtown water system. The Legislature later approved a weak $6 million bond proposal.

But after Legislative approval, Reeves and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour initially failed to include the city’s water project in government bonds to be issued in the fall of 2010.

The Legislature added an application requirement for the bond, which former Mississippi Department of Treasury and Administration spokeswoman Kym Wiggins told the Jackson Free Press was “exclusive” to Jackson at the time. In order for his application to be approved, Reeves said the city must answer a series of questions about how the money will be used.

Barbour and Reeves later relented and voted to approve the bond after city officials made pledges that included funding projects through soft loans instead of the interest-free loans described in the legislation.

The governor’s office told the AP that Reeves, as state treasurer, ultimately voted to approve the bonds. But in the June 2011 interview with Gallo, he said the Bond Commission refused to put Jackson Water Bonds on its agenda.

“We make the decision before it’s put on the agenda, so there’s no actual vote,” Reeves said.

Bond bills proposed by Jackson-area lawmakers often fail to make it out of the legislature before the Bond Commission steps in.

In the 2022 legislative session, a bill that would have approved $4 million in bonds for water and sewage improvements in Jackson died in committee. Another would have provided money to build a separate water system for Jackson State University, which in August had to install makeshift toilets and portable showers because of discolored water running through dorm faucets.

At another press conference in September, Reeves said the state had given Jackson $200 million in recent years to solve his water problems. But the numbers Reeves’ office gave Jackson television station WLBT-TV include revenue from measures like a 1% sales tax paid only by people who shop in Jackson.

“This is not money that comes out of the state of Mississippi,” said Democratic Rep. Earle Banks of Jackson. “This is money coming from the citizens of Jackson and people doing business in the town of Jackson.”

With population decline eroding Jackson’s tax base, voters in 2014 overwhelmingly approved a local 1% sales tax on infrastructure repairs. The Jackson City Council asked for legislative approval for another election to double that local tax to 2 cents on the dollar. A bill to increase sales tax died in the 2021 legislative period.

Reeves said Jackson needed to fix his problems with his billing system before he “ask everyone else to come up with more money.”

Efforts to attract private investment by keeping taxes low have long been central to Reeves’ economic thinking.

The government doesn’t create jobs; it “just creates an environment that encourages the private sector to invest capital,” Reeves said in a 2011 interview with Gallo. “And the infrastructure around it is a function of the government.”

Reeves said the government has a role to play in building infrastructure to speed development. Those economic principles were not applied to Jackson, some officials said.

“Look, we can bury our heads in the sand and say, ‘Jackson’s problem isn’t our problem,'” Horhn said. “But if you hear there’s no water and you can’t brush your teeth or take a shit, cross Mississippi off the list.”

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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 brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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