JACKSON For three months out of the year, lawmakers descend on the capital city to craft the laws of the state. As they hunker down in metro-area hotels and frequent local eateries during the 2019 legislative session, Jackson officials are hoping legislators will show some love to their city in the Capitol chambers by supporting its legislative agenda.
Jackson City Council Vice President Virgi Lindsay of Ward 2 chairs the City's legislative committee. After meeting with department heads, city lobbyist Quincy Mukoro and lawmakers, she is confident about Jackson's asks, which she described as good and reasonable.
But the sole woman on the council is also a realist: Lindsay knows that although Jackson desperately needs legislative assistance with recouping uncollected funds, the 2019 session might be fairly stagnant.
"It's an election year," Lindsay told the Jackson Free Press. "I don't know what will stick or what won't stick at the Legislature, but I am hopeful that we can get them all through this year."
Helping Jackson's Bottom Line
City officials hope lawmakers at the Capitol will consider tweaking laws to help improve Jackson's bottom line.
Despite severing ties with Siemens Inc., offering payment plans to indigent customers and beginning water shutoffs, the City's efforts are not raking in cash quick enough to fill the $10 million to $20 million hole in water-and-sewer billing and collections.
While Jackson officials want to remain compassionate to residents facing hard times, they have less patience with those who have not paid a bill in two years or more. In November, the public-works department began shutting off water to customers who did not make payments in 2017 or 2018. Of the 782 households that received warning letters, the City remotely disconnected 44 percent of them.
By the end of the month, only 1 percent of customers had paid in full, and 17 percent were on payment plans.
These initial shutoffs led to just $178,581.54 in collections in November—less than 1 percent of the millions of dollars the City needs to stay afloat. Public Works Director Bob Miller said shut-offs would ramp up in 2019, after the holiday season subsided.
State law does not allow the City to forgive, adjust, release or extinguish indebtedness for any reason, leaving Jackson unable to take uncollectible bills off the books. This becomes a particular issue when the City cannot find an account in the system, or when a person moves away permanently, dies or truly cannot pay.
"There are instances where the customer is disproportionately impoverished or in need, and qualifies for an adjustment, release or extinguishment pursuant to an established social-welfare program of the City," city council documents in support of this legislation read. "The inability to make adjustments under the aforementioned circumstances has created an undue burden on the customers and the utilities that serve them."
Miller said he drafted proposed legislation based on an approach Louisiana adopted under his tenure.
"We want to make sure everybody is paying their fair share. But what we don't want to do is have something out there that doesn't reflect the reality of what we can collect and what they can pay." He added that he wants this legislation to give Jackson and cities like it the authority to manage accounts receivable like a business would.
The City also supports a bill before the 116th U.S. Congress that would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to establish a low-income sewer and water-assistance pilot program.
The Low-income Sewer and Water Assistance Program would specifically give grants to cities under consent decree, such as Jackson, to help residents meet their water and sewer bills. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, introduced the bill last session, but the House did not enact it. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is also on the legislation.
In order to collect outstanding municipal-court fines, the City is asking the 2019 Legislature to give permission for municipalities to collect debts from state income-tax refunds. To sweeten the deal, the legislation would allow the State to take 5 percent of any recouped fines and fees.
"The City of Jackson (strongly) urges the Mississippi Legislature to support and pass legislation to allow municipalities to submit debts owed to them and the State to the Mississippi Department of Revenue for collection through a setoff against income tax refunds owed to the debtor," a city resolution reads.
Legally Tackling Blight
Since Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba took office, he has not been shy about his desire to eradicate dilapidated property within the city limits. His strategic plan promises to eliminate 25 percent of blight in the city by 2021.
Toward the end of 2017, the City of Jackson announced that it had identified partners required to secure $4 million in funding from the Mississippi Home Corporation's "Blight Elimination Program."
They are Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area, Jackson Housing Authority and Chicago-based Karry L. Young Development LLC.
The program draws funds from the U.S. Department of Treasury set aside under the "Hardest Hit Fund Program," designed to provide financial assistance to families in states where the housing-market crash had the greatest impact.
However, Director of Planning and Development Mukesh Kumar said none of that money has been put to use yet because the partners are having a hard time obtaining the titles to the blighted properties in the queue for demolition.
Kumar said every property has to go through administrative review and has to have city a council order attached in order to be demolished. Not to mention, that doesn't stop some property owners from raising values on the blighted grounds, putting them out of reach.
Time is of the essence as the MHC funds run out at the end of 2020, and Kumar hopes the 2019 Legislature will help the City expedite this process in the future by giving municipalities the authority to establish land banks. The State can authorize these "quasi-governmental entities" to acquire, hold, sell, manage and develop tax-foreclosed and blighted property.
"If we had a land bank today, we probably would have been able to use by now at least $6 million worth of that money invested in blight elimination," he said at a November legislative committee meeting.
"Instead, we're still working with the first round. I can't impress how important enough how important that legislation is—it doesn't cost anyone anything."
If approved, the City would likely develop a land-bank authority with Hinds County, appointing leadership and creating the structure of the land-bank authority that could acquire titles to blighted and abandoned properties much more swiftly. They can also help with "title scrubbing" or clearing a property's liens and back taxes.
Land banks would also help keep track of abandoned properties, something the City is not currently doing well. Kumar said he has no idea how many blighted properties exist citywide, and council documents supporting this legislation estimate about 4,000.
"We have needed (land banks) for a very long time in the State of Mississippi," Lindsay said in an interview. "I think that is so critical and so important. And I really hope that that can get some traction and get approved this year."
Land banks have been huge in battling blight in Detroit, for example, where as of February 2017, the Detroit Land Bank Authority controlled nearly 100,000 parcels of land and employed 100 people, the Detroit Free Press reported. This land bank was also able to sell empty plots of land to adjoining property owners and auction homes below market value.
Lindsay also hopes the Legislature will give municipalities the authority to establish special local improvement districts and to allow a tax to generate funds to accompanying neighborhood associations for community enhancement and enrichment. This would give cities more ways to cure blight, revive parks and lift quality of life with more resources.
"The community improvement district legislation we've been trying to get through for several years now," she told the Jackson Free Press. "It would really help neighborhoods empower themselves and make improvements in their neighborhoods."
City Reporter Ko Bragg is a Philadelphia, Miss., transplant who recently completed her master's in journalism. She loves traveling and has been to 25 countries to date. Email comments and tips to her at [email protected].