It’s been a busy 12 months for Jackson’s water billing administrators.
In the last year, officials have helped resolve billing disputes for nearly 500 water customers, reducing the total amounts owed by more than $1.5 million.
The news is a sign that customers are taking full advantage of the city’s new appeals process for addressing erroneous bills.
It’s also a sign that the city continues to struggle with its problematic water billing system.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba isn’t surprised by the numbers. “We lose $20 million annually, so it stands to reason that a million of that could be erroneous,” he said.
Jackson has been working to address problems with its billing system for years. Complications stem from the metering system installed as part of a $90 million energy performance contract with Siemens.
The city implemented new appeals procedures last fall to help customers impacted by those problems.
Under the rules, customers can take disputed bills to the water/sewer administration office. If they’re not satisfied with the department’s decision, they can then request to go before the city’s water hearing officer. Customers can then appeal that decision to the city council.
The Jackson City Council approved bringing on a hearing officer in December. It was not known how many of the disputes resolved in the last year were appealed to the hearing officer or were appealed to the council.
Once the bill is on appeal, the city is unable to cut off service for nonpayment.
Previously, disputes were handled by representatives from the city attorney’s office. Because those representatives have other duties, cases could sometimes drag out for weeks without a resolution.
Additionally, customers could only file an appeal with the attorney’s office once they received a cutoff notice. Similarly, the city attorney had little time to notify public works that an appeal had been submitted before the department shut the water off.
Under new rules, customers can file complaints prior to receiving a shutoff notice. And once complaints are filed, the city is prohibited from shutting their water off.
In all, some 492 cases have been resolved since the new rules were put in place.
Disputes have been brought by residents, business owners, apartment complex owners/managers, religious groups and state entities.
In some cases, customers have seen their bills reduced by as much as six figures. And in most instances, customers have agreed to set up payment plans to retire the remaining amounts owed.
Disputed amounts have translated into some serious money. According to records, one business had its bill reduced by $154,000, while another business had its bill cut by approximately $118,000, records show.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks had $39,142 in disputed charges removed, while the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science had $42,800 in charges adjudicated.
Wildlife officials refused to say why amounts were disputed, and records didn’t indicate a reason. Remaining balances were due in full following the adjustments, city documents showed.
Among other state-owned entities, the amount owed by Jackson State University for water and sewer services at Veterans Memorial Stadium was cut by a little more than $65,000.
Residential customers have also seen their bills reduced, in amounts ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
“What we’re trying to do in adjusting water bills is to ensure affordability,” said Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine. “We want to make sure we work with our customers and have compassion in the way we bring them back into compliance.”
Customers can have balances adjusted for numerous reasons, including for leaks and for errors brought about by complications with the city’s billing system.
Remaining balances are due immediately after the adjustments are made. However, customers are given the option of setting up payment plans.
Lumumba is pleased with how well the appeals process has worked. However, he said the city needs to do more to help lower-income residents.
Jackson’s poorest residents have perhaps been impacted the most by the city’s billing problems.
Due to complications, at any given time thousands of city water customers are not receiving statements.
When customers don’t receive bills, they don’t pay. However, fees for water usage continue to rack up.
When the bills finally do come, some residents are unable to pay the exorbitant amounts.
Under state statute, the city cannot forgive amounts owed simply because a person can’t pay.
Lumumba said the city can set up payment plans to help those customers, but that does little to help customers on fixed incomes, such as social security.
According to census data, about 27 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty. Jackson’s median income is also about $6,000 less than the state’s median, census data shows.
SB 2856, legislation that would have given Jackson more tools to help poorer customers, passed both houses during the 2020 session. However, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves.
Had it been signed, the bill would have included several provisions, including one that would have allowed Jackson to set aside, but not forgive, uncollectible debt.
“It’s not that customers were sitting on their hands not paying,” the mayor said. “The city failed to generate their bills and they were hit with a large sum at once.
“We can’t expect customers on a fixed budget to pay those amounts. It’s an affordability issue.”