Council at odds over water bill proposalBy ANTHONY WARREN,
A proposal that would help Jackson collect on past due water bills has sparked debate among local leaders.
The Jackson City Council is considering backing legislation that would allow the state to intercept income tax refunds on behalf of municipalities to help pay for delinquent water bills.
With about $20 million in uncollected fines, the bill could play a major role in helping Jackson shore up its cash-strapped water/sewer enterprise fund.
However, at press time the council had yet to adopt a resolution asking the Jackson delegation to introduce the bill. The measure was tabled and sent back to the council’s Legislative Committee, after members realized they would not be able to get a unanimous vote.
Typically, lawmakers are more apt to consider a measure if the local government is 100 percent on board with it.
Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said he likely would have supported the measure but didn’t know if it would pass the legislature.
“We do have to collect on water bills for services rendered,” he said. “If that means going through the process to intercept tax refunds, I’m going to be in favor.”
He and Council President Melvin Priester said going after a person’s refund, though, should be the last line of defense.
“The customer needs to be able to appeal a particular bill and the accuracy of a bill to make sure it reflects the amount the customer owes,” Foote said.
Meanwhile, some Jackson city leaders and lawmakers are not ready to throw their support behind the idea.
District 70 Rep. Kathy Sykes said she wouldn’t support the legislation, in part, because it would impact the state’s poorest residents. Further, she said Jackson needs to fix its water billing system before it should ask the state to intercept tax refunds.
“The refund for a lot of people in our community is a way they actually take care of their essentials. To attach all these different liens to their tax refunds would really hurt,” she said. “It’s another blow to the poor.”
Sykes echoed Ward Six Councilman Aaron Banks’ concerns, when he voiced his opposition to the resolution in November. The council first considered the resolution in November, when crafting its legislative agenda.
“We haven’t gotten our collections with our water and sewer bills hashed out,” he said. “There might be people who have $1,700, $1,800 or $3,000 water bills that would go into this mode of collection.
“I’d like to support it after we … make sure our billing and collections are working 100 percent right.”
Sens. Walter Michel (District 25) and David Blount (District 29) support the resolution.
“I think if a person has an unpaid bill to a public entity they need to pay (it),” Blount said. “We do this already with child support and it is something we ought to do if someone owes a debt to a local government.”
“We all need to carry our own water,” Michel said jokingly.
District 64 Rep. Bill Denny said he would have to study the idea further before commenting.
Jackson has had billing system problems for years, many of the complications which came about as a result of its Siemens contract.
The city brought on the international firm in 2012 to overhaul the water system.
More than a year after work on the $91 million contract wrapped up, the city reported that some 20,000 customers were not receiving regular statements.
Public Works worked to sort out that problem last year and had plans to begin water shutoffs for nonpayment beginning in 2019.
In recent years, customers have received bills for thousands of dollars. In some cases, the bills were caused by wrong meter readings. In some cases, customers owed the city thousands of dollars in back pay after not receiving bills for months or years.
Public Works has established payment plans for customers needing them.
The legislative session began on January 8, and council members were planning to meet again to discuss the proposal.