Jackson working with EPA to renegotiate sewer consent decree down

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Jackson has reached what Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine calls the “starting point” in efforts to renegotiate its sewer consent decree.

“We have responded to a request from the EPA to submit a study of the city’s financial capabilities and a redesign of the targets for the work that has to be done,” he said. “This is a starting point.”

The city is hoping to soften terms of a 2012 settlement it entered into with the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice to bring its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

Under the initial agreement, Jackson was given 17.5 years to make an estimated $400 million in upgrades.

The city now expects those same repairs to run between $600 million and $800 million, a burden that Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s administration argues is simply too much for Jackson’s poorest residents to bear.

“We’re asking for a major modification, essentially to renegotiate the entire decree,” Blaine said.

Reports submitted to the EPA look at what Jacksonians would be able to pay as it relates to consent decree work, as well as a modified timeline for deliverables, Blaine said.

The reports were put together by private consultants brought on by the city earlier this year to help with the negotiations.

In May, Jackson hired the Galardi Rothstein Group, a Chicago-based firm, which was responsible for reviewing the city’s billing and collection practices.

Prior to that, the city hired Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton, an Atlanta-based law firm, to lead negotiations.

A consent decree is essentially a settlement agreement to a lawsuit brought against a city or group by the federal government.

The agreement has been filed in U.S. District Court and any changes must not only be signed off on by EPA and DOJ, but also federal magistrates.

 

Under the current decree, Jackson must achieve certain milestones to stay in compliance, such as implementing an ordinance to govern the disposal of fats, oils and greases, or FOGs, earlier this year.

FOGs, if disposed of improperly, can clog the city sewer system and lead to sanitary sewer overflows. The overflows occur when untreated wastewater leaves the sewer system and enters the environment.

Jackson is able to renegotiate the deal thanks to changes in federal policy under former President Barack Obama.

Previously, the feds determined a city’s ability to pay based on its median annual income. Last year, though, Deputy City Attorney Terry Williamson told the city council that the EPA now looks at how the decree would impact an area’s poorest residents.

“Instead of focusing on the median income (the EPA now focuses) on the lower 20 to 25-percent income levels and looks at what rates (would be necessary to do the work) and what impact (higher rates) would have on those folks,” Williamson said at the time.

Based on new costs, the decree has placed an extra $3,600 to $4,800 burden on the city’s 167,000 residents.

To help offset costs, in 2013, the city council approved raising water and sewer rates by 29 percent and 100 percent respectively.

Effective November 1, 2013, water rates went to $3.21 per 100 cubic feet, or 750 gallons used, while sewer rates increased to $4.47 per hundred cubic feet, according to the city’s web site.

The increases brought the average water and sewer bill for a family of four to $122.88 a month, based on the United States Geological Survey water use averages.

Prior to the rate hikes, average costs for a family of four was around $72.23 a month.

Meanwhile, Jackson has a per capita median income significantly lower than the national average, and much higher percentage of people living at or below the poverty line.

According to Data USA, an online database compiled by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, residents in Mississippi’s largest city earn a median income of around $33,000 a year, about $28,000 less than the national average.

Additionally, 31 percent of Jacksonians live at or below the poverty line, compared to about 13.4 percent nationally, U.S. Census figures show.

Jackson’s poverty rate is significantly higher than other similar-sized cities under sewer consent decrees. Shreveport, La., and Chattanooga, Tenn., for example are each facing $250 million in decree-mandated work.

Shreveport, a city of about 192,000 people, has a median income of $38,056, and 24.7 percent of residents living in poverty. Chattanooga, with 179,000 people, has a median income of $41,278, and 21.1 percent living in poverty, Data USA shows.

For the 48 contiguous states, a family of four is considered living in poverty if they have an annual household income of $28,100 or less.

 

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