Year in Review: Gluckstadt, Giant Salvinia, Siemens hot topics in 2019

By ANTHONY WARREN,

From the Community Improvement Districts and the Gluckstadt incorporation to the Siemens lawsuit and the Giant Salvinia, the past 12 months have been busy ones on the Northside.

Some of the top news events this year include the approval of CID legislation, residents’ efforts to incorporate Gluckstadt, along with the city of Jackson’s efforts to sort out problems with its water billing system.

After years of speculation and waiting, construction also had gotten under way on the Ridgeland Costco.

Construction was also under way on several major road projects. Work continued on the North State Street project in Jackson and the Reunion Parkway interchange, while work began on the Northside Drive project. Farther north, work was under way on the I-55 flyover bridge in Ridgeland, a road that will connect U.S. 51 to Highland Colony Parkway. Construction had also started on a project to alleviate the rush hour bottleneck at I-55 and County Line Road.

While progress had been made on several fronts, the Jackson Zoo closed its doors to the public and the Jackson-Hinds Library System continued to struggle with structural problems and payroll issues.

Meanwhile, officials at the Ross Barnett Reservoir were struggling with its ongoing Giant Salvinia problem, while residents and officials in Madison County were sparring over a landfill proposed for West County Line Road.

In the capital city, the Jackson Convention Complex continued to disappoint.

In March, Northsiders scored a major victory with the passage of HB 1612, the community improvement district legislation.

The bill allows neighborhoods in Jackson to form CIDs. Under the law, property owners within the districts pay a special assessment along with their annual property taxes, which is used specifically for improvements within their area.

The measure passed both houses and was signed by the governor, capping a roughly five-year struggle to see it passed.

It was authored by Rankin County Rep. Mark Baker. Similar bills written by Sens. David Blount and Walter Michel could not make it out of a Senate committee.

Leaders have wasted no time in attempting to implement the special districts.

At press time, the Greater Belhaven Foundation had collected nearly half of the signatures needed to form a CID there. That district would cover both the Belhaven and Belhaven Heights neighborhoods.

The LeFleur East Foundation also had begun its efforts and was planning to meet with local leaders within its coverage area before moving forward with collecting signatures.

Forming CIDs are pretty labor intensive. Simply to petition the city, 60 percent of home and property owners within a proposed area have to sign a petition in support.

From there, the petition, along with documentation showing the proposed boundaries of the district, and a strategic showing how CID funds would be used, are submitted to city officials for consideration.

The city then verifies the signatures and determines the millage needed to implement the projects in the strategic plan. Once a proposed millage rate is hammered out, the city would call for an election.

Under state statute, the city has 90 days to set an election once the strategic plan is formally submitted. State law also mandates that the city advertise the election in the local newspaper once a week for three weeks prior to the election date. During the election, all qualified electors in the proposed district are allowed to vote. For it to be approved, 60 percent of the qualified electors casting ballots must vote in favor.

Residents in the Gluckstadt area also scored a major victory this year, when the courts upheld efforts to incorporate. A major opponent of the annexation, Mac Haik, also withdrew his opposition.

However, the incorporation was still being challenged by the city of Canton.

In March, Judge James Walker approved the boundaries for the new city.

That decision was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court by the city of Canton. The measure now can be heard by the high court or assigned to a lower state court of appeals.

Meanwhile, Gluckstadt leaders are concerned that they have little say in governing growth in the area while its status as a city is limbo.

Currently, the area is unincorporated and governed by the Madison County Comprehensive Plan. That plan, among other things, governs land use issues, such as zoning.

Growth in the area continues to skyrocket. According to the 2019 tax roll, there were 62 single residences added to the tax roll within the proposed limits of Gluckstadt. Another 12 businesses were added.

Meanwhile, expenses for the Gluckstadt incorporation continue to go up.

Between 2015 and May, legal expenses had reached $500,000. With the case now on appeal, those expenses are likely to rise, according to attorney John Scanlon. To make up that amount, leaders are looking for donations from residents and businesses.

Legal fees have also risen in the airport takeover case. The city of Jackson and the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) are attempting to block the state’s takeover of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

Through September, the state had spent more than $815,000 defending the effort, while JMAA had spent $473,881.

The state is attempting to do away with JMAA and replace it with a regional board made up of state and local appointees, essentially taking control of the airport from the capital city.

Legislators were handed a major victory in the case this summer, when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that lawmakers did not have to comply with a lower court’s requirement to release third-party communications related to passage of SB 2162, the airport takeover bill.

Previously, Jackson officials were attempting to obtain the data, to determine motives behind the legislation.

 

Among other suits, the city of Jackson filed suit against Siemens industry, its related companies and subcontractors, citing complications with its billing system.

The suit was filed in the summer, with the city initially seeking $225 million in damages. Later in the year, the amount was increased to $450 million.

The Lumumba administration filed the suit in June, in Hinds County Circuit Court.

According to documents, the city alleges that the international company and its subcontractors perpetrated a “massive fraud” on the capital city severely damaging its finances, destroying its creditworthiness and ruining its reputation among residents.

The city states that Siemens guaranteed $120 million in savings as a result of the work, which included installing new meters, building and implementing a new billing system, and making some repairs at the city’s water treatment plants and sewer lines.

The city, though, states that the work has yet to live up to the promises. Jackson also states that the contract was overpriced by millions, in part, because of the use of “sham” minority contractors as pass-through for millions of dollars.

On top of that, the city alleges that the contract did not meet the state standards required for “energy performance contracts,” and that projected savings were based on assumptions, not hard numbers.

Jackson brought on Siemens in 2012 to completely overhaul its water billing system. The contract was for around $90 million and was paid for with bonds.

Work included installing some 60,000 residential and 5,000 commercial water meters, implementing a new billing system and creating a network that would allow meters to better communicate with that billing system.

Jackson would no longer have to have meter readers, a move that would save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The new meters would also provide more accurate billings, a move that was expected to increase water revenues, while at the same time help residents curb water usage by providing real-time data.

The majority of the work was completed in 2015. Since then, Jackson has had to address numerous complications. Last spring, the water enterprise fund was in danger of going bankrupt after the city learned that some 23,000 customers were not receiving bills.

After sorting out that problem, this fall, public works announced that another 10,500 customers were not receiving statements.

Citing the Siemens complications and lawsuit, six water customers filed suit in Hinds County Chancery Court asking the judge to block the city from shutting off water services for nonpayment.

While the city addresses those lawsuits, it’s also working to implement the fixes needed to shore up its troubled billing system. The Lumumba administration issued $7 million in water bonds to implement recommendations made by a private consultant to shore up the system. The first major portion of that work wrapped up recently.

On the infrastructure front, Jackson also was still dealing with its sewer consent decree.

The city entered the decree in 2012. Under it, Jackson was initially required to spend $400 million to bring the system up to federal water quality law standards.

However, this year, the city estimated that the fixes needed for the system totaled approximately $945 million.

Jackson is currently attempting to renegotiate terms of the degree with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Talks with the agencies began earlier this year.

Meanwhile, sanitary sewer overflows and illegal dischargers were still a problem. In August, the Sun reported that managers of the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant had discharged four billion gallons of untreated wastewater into the Pearl River.

The dischargers were a violation of the decree and the Clean Water Act, and likely contributed to the contact advisory on the Pearl River.

The plant is managed by Veolia Water North America. The firm was brought on in October 2016 to oversee plant operations. Under the 10-year agreement, the Boston-based company just over $10.9 million a year for the service.

Between December 8, 2018 and May 22, 2019, Veolia discharged more than 4 billion gallons of untreated, partially treated or diluted wastewater into the Pearl, bypassing the plant and its on-site storage lagoons.

Officials at the Ross Barnett Reservoir were grappling with water-related problems of their own. However, the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District wasn’t dealing with infrastructure problems, but rather an invasive plant.

Giant Salvinia continued to wreak havoc on the reservoir this year, and many residents were frustrated over the measures the government was taking to eradicate it.

Floodwaters back in January spread plant material.

Recently, the PRVWSD, along with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, decided to lower the lake level by four feet to dry out areas where the Salvinia grows.

They, along with Mississippi State University, also planned to burn and spray exposed areas before returning the lake to its normal levels once the burn and treatment was completed.

Several residents welcome the decision, with some saying the Salvinia has negatively impacted property values along Pelahatchie Bay.

Speaking of water, the One Lake Plan also made news this year.

This fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report saying that the construction of a lake would have a negligible impact on the environment, in particular, on two endangered species found in the project’s footprint.

The secretary’s review will be the final step in a grueling evaluation process that has included reviews by the Vicksburg corps, a second corps office unaffiliated with the project, and other government agencies.

One Lake includes the construction of a 1,500-acre lake along the Pearl River, from just north of Lakeland Drive to south of I-20 near Richland. To create the lake, a weir near the waterworks curve would be removed and replaced with a new weir near Richland.

The lake is designed to reduce flooding, by helping move water downstream in the event of a major flood. The lake would also mean the creation of thousands of acres of new waterfront property, which could be developed or set aside for recreational use.

To report states that the lake would have an impact on the habitats of the Gulf sturgeon and ringed map turtles, two federally endangered species there.

Fish and Wildlife recommended several steps to mitigate the impacts.

The report will now be submitted along with the One Lake plan to the U.S. Secretary of the Army for final approval.

Plans were to submit the document by the end of 2019.

While those matters were ongoing, it appeared that opponents to the Ridgeland Costco were out of legal options.

Construction on the retailer was going “full-tilt boogie” on the development this fall. Plans were for the Costco fuel station to open in January, with the Costco Wholesale warehouse opening to the public in March.

The store is located on Highland Colony Parkway next to Christ Life Church of the Highlands. It is part of the third phase of Renaissance at Colony Park, and is being developed by Andrew Mattiace.

The much anticipated, yet highly controversial project has been hampered by numerous weather delays brought on by one of the wettest years in Mississippi history.

Work also has been challenged every step of the way through the court system. The 150,000-square-foot project had also been stymied by unusually wet weather.

City leaders tout the store as needed to help keep taxes in the city low.

The store is expected to generate around $47,617 a year in new property taxes for the city, $77,830 a year in new property taxes for Madison County and $127,957 for the Madison County School District. The wholesaler would generate an additional $1.3 million a year in new sales tax dollars for Ridgeland coffers.

Lawsuits attempting to stop the store’s construction spilled over from previous years.

Opponents’ recent suits included efforts to block the city of Ridgeland’s moratorium on storage facilities, which they say was done to benefit Costco developers.

The Ridgeland Citizens for Responsible Development (RCRD) also appealed a decision of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) granting permits for the development.

The permits were needed because the development would impact a nearby navigable waterway and approximately 14 acres of wetlands.

With the new store will also come a new way to access it. Construction was under way this year on the Lake Harbour Drive extension project.

The work will connect Lake Harbour to Highland Colony Parkway via a flyover bridge above I-55 North. The extension will run from Lake Harbour at U.S. 51 to Highland Colony between the Costco and Christ Life Church.

Eutaw Construction received the contract for the bridge and road work, while Hemphill Construction was awarded a contract to install a box culvert under the railroad at Purple Creek.

The railroad required the new box culvert before the city could cross the railroad with the new road, mayor Gene McGee said at the time. The box culvert was slated to be finished by the end of the summer. The extension itself will wrap up in late 2020.

Other road projects also got started or were under way this year. Crews continued work on the North State Street Reconstruction Project and began work on the Northside Drive Repaving Project.

However, work on the State Street project had fallen behind schedule because of the year’s unusually wet weather.

The State Street project is being paid for with a portion of a federal TIGER grant, as well as one-percent infrastructure dollars. The $19.6 million project includes rebuilding the roadway from Hartfield Road to Sheppard Road.

From Hartfield to Choctaw Road, the street will be reduced from four lanes to two lanes; and from Choctaw to Sheppard, it will be reduced to two lanes and a turn lane. A 10-foot-wide multi-use path will be added as well.

Work also includes replacing and repairing all of the water and sewer mains underneath it, to reduce chances that the roadway will have to be dug up to make main repairs after work is finished. 

As of October, all reconstruction work had begun on the section of North State between Northside Drive and Meadowbrook Road. Hemphill Construction is doing the work.

While that project continued, crews began a $2.4 million repaving project on East Northside Drive. That work includes milling and overlaying the roadway between I-55 North and North State and bringing sidewalks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

About 20,000 motorists travel the roadway each day. Work is expected to wrap up in early 2020.

Farther north, engineers told the Madison County board of supervisors in November that they more than halfway finished with the design work for Reunion Parkway Phase Two. The segment will run from Bozeman Road, across I-55 and tie into Parkway East.

In all, millions of dollars in federal and state funding were funneled to the metro area for transportation construction.

In February, the area received $10.2 million from the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District (CMPDD) for various mill, overlay and widening projects, as well as funds for traffic signalization improvements.

Streets chosen in Jackson included Meadowbrook Road, I-55 West/Northbrook Drive and North State Street from Sheppard to Briarwood Drive.

Madison County received funds for widening, realigning and making intersection improvements from Red Fox Road to the Stribling Road extension.

Ridgeland received $954,000 for traffic signal equipment improvements at multiple locations citywide. The city also was awarded $1,351,000 to fund new traffic signals on Highland Colony Parkway at Renaissance Driveway three, Renaissance Driveway four and at Lake Harbour. Another $1,070,500 went to Ridgeland for traffic signal upgrades on Highway 51 at Lake Harbour, in addition to intersection improvements.

Meanwhile, Jackson city officials learned how allocation from the new “Capitol Complex Improvement District” (CCID) would be used.

The CCID master plan was released earlier this year. The plan governs how the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) will spend CCID funds. The district was established in 2017 and takes in a large swath of the capital city, including many of its state-owned properties.

Under the law, the state will set aside a portion of sales tax revenues generated in the city each year to cover public improvements within it.

The master plan was drawn up by Waggoner Engineering, and included eight projects. Those projects included repaving several streets on the Northside, including Museum Boulevard.

In June, engineering firms were hired to draw up plans for seven of the projects. 

Jackson also will be getting additional help with its roads, thanks to the city’s plans to issue $40 million in infrastructure bonds.

With the blessing of the one-percent infrastructure tax commission, the city is planning to use one-percent funds to leverage the bonds, which in large part, will be used for roads.

While Northsiders welcome more funding for roads, they’re opposed to plans to bring another landfill to Madison County. Madison County residents were fighting plans to locate a third landfill on County Line Road.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was still considering whether it would grant a permit to NCL Waste to build a landfill at 2858 North County Line Road. The landfill would sit on a roughly 166-acre site, with 89 being dedicated for the disposal area.

NCL Waste submitted applications for the following permits: a solid waste management permit for the operation of the proposed municipal solid waste landfill; a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for storm water runoff; a wastewater pretreatment permit for the discharge of leachate to a permitted wastewater treatment facility; an Air Permit to Construct air emission equipment; a Title V air permit for the operation of air emission equipment; and a water quality certification regarding impacts to waters of the state and wetlands.

The board postponed voting on the measure until its January 14 meeting.

The measure is opposed by numerous residents and officials with the city of Ridgeland.

According to Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee, there are 18 active solid waste landfills in the state. No other county has more than one landfill, except Madison County.

“The city of Ridgeland, and Madison too, most of our solid waste doesn’t even go to the landfill here in service now,” McGee said.

He said most of the solid waste going into both landfills is coming from outside of this area.

While Ridgeland was helping fight the landfill battle, Jackson was grappling with how to address problems at the Jackson Zoo and with the Jackson-Hinds Library System (JHLS).

The Jackson Zoological Park closed to the public on October 1. The closure came about along with the dissolution of the Jackson Zoological Society, the nonprofit that previously operated the zoo, and as the Lumumba administration continued talks with ZoOceanarium, the firm it hopes will take over park management.

The agreement between the city and the international firm had not been finalized at press time.

While the zoo is closed to visitors, it’s business as usual for the park’s animals. The zoo is still staffed by employees, who are working on a contract basis, to care for animals and maintain the park.

The zoo was closed months after the Sun reported a significant decrease in attendance year over year and less than two months after Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said the zoo would likely have to close due to its financial situation.

Through June 30, just under 35,000 people had visited the West Jackson destination, a roughly 58 percent decline during the same period in 2018, according to zoo figures.

Citing declining numbers, zoo staffers had to approach the city council for a $200,000 allocation to keep doors open. That allocation came, and the zoo stayed open through September 30, the end of the 2019 fiscal year.

The Jackson-Hinds Library System was suffering from problems of its own.

Use of the Eudora Welty Library, the system’s flagship has dropped off substantially since the branch was reduced to one floor two years ago by the state fire marshal.

Last year, 45,663 people visited the Welty branch, down from 63,045 in 2010 and 107,566 in 1998, according to library figures.

Library Executive Director Patty Furr credited the decline, in large part, to the temporary closure of the downtown Jackson branch in 2017. That year, State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney closed the library, citing numerous fire codes. The branch was later reopened, but use was restricted to the first floor only.

Welty’s second floor houses the branch’s reference, large-print, non-fiction and biography collections. Combined, those collections boast a little more than 50,000 items.

It also is where most of the study space at the North State Street branch was located.

Meanwhile, the Charles Tisdale Library was still closed, and, due to inaction by the system, approximately 34,000 books being stored at the branch were lost due to black mold.

The Northside Drive branch closed in April 2017, after heavy storms caused flooding the in the basement. That flooding exacerbated an already existing black mold problem there, causing it to spread.

The books were never relocated and in October 2018, inspectors learned that many hardcover volumes had been contaminated by the toxic substance.

Further inspections earlier this year determined that even more books had been infected.

Moving the books was not an option, largely because the system didn’t have the money or space to do so, said Jackson-Hinds Library System (JHLS) Executive Director Patty Furr.

Furr was afraid of moving the books to other branches for fear the mold would spread to those collections.

A couple of free storage options were offered to the system but none worked out.

In 2018, owners of the Metrocenter Mall offered temporary storage space but the mall closed before the library could act on it.

Tests revealed that the books had not been contaminated at least six months after the branch’s closure.

The Jackson Convention Complex also has underwhelmed this year.

A Sun investigation revealed that the center’s annual economic impact had fallen well short of the projected impact it was supposed to have after being built.

According to annual reports posted on the center’s website, its annual economic impact has been just over $26 million, with a high of $34.4 million in fiscal year 2014 and low of $18.8 million in FY 2017.

The center opened in 2009, five years after Jackson residents approved a ballot referendum to fund its construction. A special tax is still being collected today to pay for it.

Prior to the vote, the center was sold as an economic generator, which would generate around $66 million a year in new spending in Jackson.

The Sun’s reports were backed up later in the year, after managers asked for additional funds ($131,000) to keep the doors open through the end of the 2019 fiscal year.

The center is managed by SMG World, the firm that has managed the facility since it opened. Since then, the center has never been profitable. 

Convention center leaders blame the under performance on the lack of a convention center hotel, as well as a lack of coordination between center officials and the Visit Jackson, the agency formerly known as the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In August, the city announced that it was in talks with a developer to bring a hotel to the area, as part of a larger mixed-use development.

The development would be located on Pascagoula Street, directly across from the convention center.

Finally, there will be several new leaders come next year following the 2019 statewide elections.

Locally, District 54 Rep. Bill Denny, one of the state’s longest-serving lawmakers, was narrowly defeated by Democrat Shanda Yates. First-term District 70 Rep. Kathy Sykes also was defeated, by former Jackson City Councilman William “Bo” Brown. Jill Ford became the newest representative in Madison County, taking the District 73 House seat.

In Madison County, District 4 Supervisor David Bishop was ousted after just one term in the Republican primary. That Republican, Jim Harreld, was defeated by Democrat Karl Banks, who had previously held the seat for years.

Supervisors Sheila Jones, Trey Baxter and Gerald Steen all held onto their seats.

In Hinds County, District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham cruised to re-election for his fourth term in office, while District 2 Supervisor Darrel McQuirter was defeated by David Archie, and District 3 Supervisor Peggy Calhoun retired, only to be replaced by her husband, Credell, a state representative.

In the sheriff’s race, residents ousted first-term incumbent Victor Mason in favor of former Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance.

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