Tax helping Jackson with water, sewer repairs

Jackson again is having to rely on the one-percent infrastructure tax to bail out its water and sewer system.

This time, the funds are being used to cover costs on emergency sewer repair in south Jackson, as well as consent decree program management services.

Commission members approved awarding the city nearly $3.2 million, of which $1,755,000 will be used to repair a broken sewer main along Linde Drive and $1.4 million will be used to continue consent decree program management services through the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

The measures were approved after an impassioned plea from Public Works Director Robert Miller, who said the water system was barely generating enough revenues to cover operations and maintenance.

He said if the funds were not awarded, Jackson would be in danger of having its sewer system taken over by the federal government.

“If I tell regulators we don’t have viable program management, they will say, ‘thank you very much. The next time we see you will be in front of a judge when we take over your (sewer) system,” he said.

Jackson is currently under a sewer consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The city entered into the decree in 2012 and agreed to make some $400 million in repairs to its sewer system to bring it into compliance with federal water quality laws.

Today, the decree work is expected to run $945 million, a burden that will eventually have to be passed off to Jackson’s ratepayers.

The city, though, is currently working to renegotiate terms of the decree with the EPA.

However, to be able to renegotiate, the city has to show EPA good faith efforts that it’s making progress under current decree terms.

Without a program manager, Miller said the city is unable to do that.

Management services would typically be funded by water and sewer rate collections. However, with collections continuing to be down, public works has had to turn to the city council or one-percent commission to help.

In the last year and a half, oversight members have given the city $18 million to cover water and sewer needs.

Among allocations, $6.9 million was awarded to the department in the spring of 2018 to reimburse it for making emergency water main repairs dating back to September 2016.

After that, commissioners gave public works a $7.2 million loan to make additional water/sewer line repairs.

Another $4 million loan was awarded to the department to cover consent decree program management needs through September 30, 2020.

Northsiders have benefited significantly from the expenditures, with funds being used to repair sewer lines on Lelia Drive, Ridgewood Road and Lenox Court, Rolling Meadows Road, Northside Drive and Old Canton Road, Briarfield Drive, Kimwood Drive, Colonial Drive, Myrtle Street and Fortification Street.

Combined, those projects cost nearly $1.8 million.

Commissioner Pete Perry, though, questioned why the commission was having to pay twice for program management, asking what happened to the $4 million awarded for the services last year. 

Miller said those funds were used to pay invoices on previous water/sewer repairs.

“Which is not what we loaned it for,” said Perry.

The measures were approved on a 6-1 vote, contingent on whether the funds were in place and whether the expenditure would be in line with the one-percent master plan.

The master plan was approved by the board in 2017 and governs how one-percent dollars are spent. The plan states that at least half of all one-percent moneys must go toward road resurfacing and related costs.

However, the document states that oversight members can allocate funds for “ ‘urgent needs’ or ‘emergency issue’ projects as determined by the commission.”

Initially, Miller had asked for $2.4 million for management services, but told members that $1.4 million would allow him to make it through the end of the budget year, September 30, 2020.

Current consent decree managers Burns & McDonnell, a consulting firm based in Kansas City, Mo. The firm works locally with Waggoner Engineering and AJA Consultants.

Duties include submitting quarterly, semi-annual and annual compliance reports to the EPA, assist with EPA negotiations, plan system repairs and provide staff augmentation.

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