As I walk door-to-door through neighborhoods during our campaign for Jackson City Council, there is one thing strikes me over and over: the vast quantity of treated water that I see running down our curbs, flooding our streets, and overloading our already-stressed sewer system. To date, the solution to our water problems being proposed by some of our City’s leaders has been two-fold: 1. Hire a consultant whose standard approach is to advise municipalities to raise water rates; and 2. Plan to raise water rates. This approach is short-sighted and does nothing to decrease treated water loss, reduce expenses, improve water quality, or increase efficiency.
Like cities nationwide, Jackson’s water supply is being moved through an increasingly aging and deteriorating underground infrastructure. The average water loss nationwide is 16 percent. In Jackson, an astounding 44 percent of treated water is lost in our aging infrastructure. I am unaware of any higher treated water loss rate in the entire nation.
As a result, Jackson is facing higher water rates, increased water quality concerns, and rampant sinkholes. Boil-water notices are all too common. Leaks and breaks lead to potential entry points for disease-causing pathogens. Our roads collapse, our sewer system is further stressed, potholes multiply, home foundations crack, and families and businesses suffer.
What’s the solution? While out on the campaign trail, I ask residents this question: “What would you do if your house had a 44 percent treated water loss due to deteriorated pipes?” The answer is simple. You would fix it. The solution is no different for a City. The answer for Jackson lies with fixing our crumbling infrastructure. It is a simple solution, but not an easy one.
The first and most obvious hurdle is cost. How much will it cost to upgrade Jackson’s water transmission and distribution systems? Jackson has limited funds to fix this aging infrastructure, most of which is over 50 years old. Due to Jackson’s leaders kicking the can down the road from generation to generation for fifty years, it is now estimated that up to $500 million will be needed to upgrade Jackson’s water transmission and distribution systems.
To add insult to injury, in August 2011, Moody’s downgraded Jackson’s water and sewer debt. Just a few days ago, Moody’s did it once again. For Jackson residents like me, it is another warning of the impending financial challenges facing our City. Moody’s downgrade is primarily due to Jackson’s aging infrastructure, and the City’s violation of the 120-percent debt-coverage ratio required in the City’s bond covenants. Specifically, the City’s revenues must be 20 percent more than its expenses in order to pay interest on its bonds.
This year, Jackson experienced a whopping $12 million shortfall from the $80 million water revenue estimate for fiscal year 2014. The troubling trend for Jackson has been decreasing revenue and rising expenses, which makes it difficult for our City to meet this bond requirement. Even the recent 1% sales tax is only expected to bring in around $13.5 million per year, which is nowhere near the $500 million estimated to be needed. Bi-monthly billing does nothing to reduce nonpayment issues (what effective business bills every two month?). Moreover, Jackson is still one of America’s only capital cities which does not receive some form of fee-in-lieu of taxes in order for the State to pay its fair share of use of the public infrastructure.
The good news is that fixing our infrastructure can be done. First, we have to formulate and execute a water loss control plan. Second, by upgrading the existing infrastructure, we will reduce the costs of no-bid emergency repair work which often costs taxpayers three times as much as preplanning. Moreover, the recently exposed graft at the Department of Corrections should give us ample warnings of the opportunities for corruption in no-bid contracts. Third, we have to properly train our existing public works employees. Many if not most have had little to no training, and the results are evident in our streets.
Finally, we have to hold government contractors accountable. The last 15 of my 18 years of law practice have focused on construction law, including acting as a Special Assistant Attorney General in recovering over $7.5 million for taxpayers for defective construction and design, and fraud. I have learned that quite often our governmental entities lack that level of expertise in order to hold government contractors accountable. The City has to be informed and proactive. Far too often, the taxpayers do not get what they paid for.
By implementing a water loss control plan for execution over the next 20 years, reducing no-bid emergency repair contracts, and holding government contractors accountable, we can fix these problems. If we promptly formulate a water loss control program, and are disciplined enough to implement it by using the 1% sales tax to replace our deteriorated infrastructure, we can begin upgrading the worst areas immediately. The time to recover the costs of water loss control is typically months rather than years.
Jackson’s tax base is already stressed. If the City fails to comply with debt-coverage ratio requirement, it could result in default, which would make it more expensive for future infrastructure borrowing. Meanwhile, if we continue to ignore our treated water loss, we will all be paying increasingly higher water bills and taxes while our infrastructure crumbles.
There is no more time to kick the can down the road. Let’s do the simple but hard thing, Jackson — let’s fix these broken pipes.
» Dorsey R. Carson is a Jackson lawyer running for the District 1 City Council seat of Jackson.
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