Cutting off water

 

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba may want Jackson to be the most radical city in the nation, but free water will not be part of his plan. Lumumba announced the water department will start shutting off water to homes for non-payment of water bills. Twenty thousand customers are considered delinquent.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The city can close the water meter valve to a home but it’s not rocket science to turn it back on. All it takes is a $20 water valve key from a hardware store. The city will have to visibly prosecute those engaged in water theft to gain control of its water department. It’s hard to imagine the left-leaning mayor leading this charge or even the city council for that matter.

Like the problem with our roads, this problem goes way back. After years of deferred maintenance, the city doubled water rates over a short period of time to deal with a host of maintenance nightmares. Then the city spent $90 million to computerize water meters. But due to a lack of training of billing employees, once Siemens’ initial work wrapped up, the upgrades were not properly implemented. Bills didn’t get mailed. Bills that were mailed were wrong. Confidence in the water department evaporated. People just quit paying. And here we are.

Credit goes to Jackson Public Works head Robert Miller for rehiring Siemens. But it’s much easier to keep Humpty Dumpty from falling than trying to put him back together again. It will take a monumental effort to resuscitate the water department. In the meantime, Jackson expects to collect $45 million of it’s $71 million in annual billings. That’s $26 million shortfall from a city that is already struggling financially.

Mayor Lumumba has created a water department “bill of rights” to lessen the pain as he cracks down on non-paying citizens. Miller said the cutoffs would be “compassionate” and only apply to customers who have not “engaged” the city.

The city should look at privatizing the water department. The water sewer treatment facility is already privatized. Garbage privatization has worked well in Jackson. In the U.S., 73 million Americans are served by private water departments. Privatization is not a cure all and brings its owns host of problems – mainly contract graft – but Jackson’s water woes demand a radical solution. If the city lacks the political will to be tough on its water collection policy, the only viable solution may be privatizing the entire department.