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Water issues inflame old tensions

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and Gov. Haley Barbour have engaged in a letter-writing war over the State Bond Commission’s refusal to issue $6 million in bonds to improve the city’s water system.

Twice this year, all or parts of Jackson have gone without water service due to problems with the pipes. In January, a hard freeze left most of the city without for several days. Portable restrooms were placed outside the Capitol for lawmakers in session. The MBJ offices set up temporary shop in a Madison hotel. Earlier this summer, a relatively new water main burst at the main treatment facility, cutting off service for several hours, mainly in the northern part of the city. Magnolia Marketplace’s house was one of the ones affected.

Johnson is miffed that the Bond Commission, of which Barbour is the chairman, voted against the $6 million bond project, even though the Legislature passed it and Barbour signed it as part of an omnibus bond program this past session. Barbour countered that the $6 million alone amounted to a drop in the bucket when it came to the overall cost of repairing and upgrading Jackson’s water infrastructure, and encouraged Johnson to seek a low-interest loan through the Department of Environmental Quality.

This latest conflict raises anew the decades-old tension between Jackson and state government. The majority of Downtown Jackson is made up of state buildings, which pay no property taxes but receive city services.

There have been a few attempts by Jackson officials over the years to institute a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program to help offset some of the costs the city incurs in providing services to those state buildings. They have gotten nowhere. It’s a hard sell for a North Mississippi lawmaker to spend money on something that won’t benefit his constituents.

Budgets at every level of government are shrinking, a symptom of the depression. Lawmakers, especially with an election year coming up, are averse to any kind of new spending that might lead to a tax increase. On the other hand, Jackson is running a budget deficit and could surely use the money.

This water flap will most likely get resolved. If it doesn’t, you can take this to the bank: If and when the water pipes burst this winter, Barbour and Johnson will blame each other. Meanwhile, the rest of us will suffer.

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