By Ted Carter
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson overcame a key challenge Thursday in his quest to overhaul the city’s antiquated water and sewer system.
The city’s sole legislative priority for the year – a bill amendment that would enable the city to bond major water and sewer upgrades through 2023 – received Senate approval by a 38-9 margin.
Bill sponsor Sen. John Horhn said he expects a favorable vote in the House, where members are “more receptive” to assisting the City of Jackson than are Senate members. He had said going in he was “highly confident” of the legislation’s success if it could survive the Senate test.
The Senate approved an amendment to legislation passed two years ago to allow Jackson to stage a referendum on enacting a penny special option sales tax to fund the infrastructure work. The amendment removes a 2014 sunset provision for the special tax and replaces it with a 2023 sunset, a period in which the city expects it can generate $15 million to $20 million a year for the utilities improvements.
Though a special option sales tax would have to receive a super majority of 60 percent from city voters, the mayor’s office says it thinks voters would prefer the penny tax over huge increases in water and sewer bills that would be needed to fund the infrastructure overhaul.
A provision for an oversight committee remains. It requires that spending of the tax be reviewed by a panel made up of three city residents appointed by the governor, three city residents appointed by the mayor and a selection by the mayor of four of eight nominees presented by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. The four selections from the Chamber’s list of nominees do not have to be Jackson residents must have “significant” business interests in the city.
Chris Mims, a spokesman for Mayor Johnson, said Johnson is well pleased with the vote, though he would like to have seen the oversight commission eliminated. Some fear that Jackson voters may feel the oversight commission would take control of the spending away from the city’s elected officials. That could make it tougher to get the 60 percent approval needed for passage of the referendum, they say.
Mims said the time required to do engineering work ahead of the utilities upgrade and prepare a bond issue makes it imperative the city move rapidly on all fronts, including holding of the all-important voter referendum