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Jackson lawmakers ‘shocked’ after Henifin backs bill depleting local power

Just over a year into his uniquely powerful role reviving Jackson’s water infrastructure, third-party manager Ted Henifin is supporting an effort to leave the city without any future control of its water and sewer assets.

Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, authored Senate Bill 2628, a renewed attempt to place the capital city’s water and sewer infrastructure under the control of a “Capitol Region Utility Authority.” The measure passed out of its Senate committee last week.

Parker in last year’s session filed a similar bill, which Henifin, along with Jackson’s legislative delegation and city officials, criticized as a power grab by the state. That bill failed in the House.

But in a Feb. 23 press release, Henifin seemingly flipped his narrative on the state’s efforts by giving his support for SB 2628.

“After reviewing SB 2628, I believe this is a great foundation,” Henifin said in a Feb. 23 press release. “It appears that many of the comments I provided during the last session regarding the bill introduced in 2023 were taken to heart and this bill now includes many of the suggestions I made at that time.”

Empowered by U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, Henifin’s primary role is to use about $800 million in federal funding to stabilize Jackson’s water and, as of last fall, sewer systems. But the 2022 court order that hired Henifin also asked him to suggest a future governance structure for the water system after his time in charge ends.

While Henifin has yet to make an official recommendation to the court, he last year brought up an idea of creating a corporate nonprofit, similar to what’s proposed in SB 2628, but also keeping ownership of the water assets with the city.

While the two versions of the Parker bill are largely similar, the 2024 version strips all power from Jackson city officials to have any say in how their water and sewer systems are run. In the 2023 measure, the newly created utility authority would be governed by a nine-person board. Five appointees would have came from the governor and lieutenant governor, outnumbering the four that would have came from the mayor of Jackson.

While that version left the city with a minority of the board appointments, the 2024 measure goes even further: SB 2628 would give five appointees to the governor, and the remaining four to the lieutenant governor. That would leave who controls a city service in a majority Black, largely Democratic city in the hands of two white Republicans.

Mississippi Today reached out to Henifin asking whether he had any concern with the lack of local power being proposed in the Parker bill. The third-party manager responded via e-mail that he has “no dog in the appointment fight.”

“I am agnostic as to who appoints the board,” Henifin said. “The important thing to me is the board seats remain as defined along with the various requirements of all board members — ratepayers connected to the system, no elected officials, etc.”

But state officials representing Jackson were far from pleased with his support of the bill.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, told Mississippi Today that no one from the Jackson delegation even knew about Parker’s bill until it was introduced at last week’s Senate committee meeting. Horhn also said he met with Henifin earlier this week.

“We met with Mr. Henifin this week to express our dismay with the position that we’ve been put into by his comments,” Horhn said, explaining that Henifin’s support of the bill gives its proponents extra ammunition to argue for it.

On top of the city having no elected officials in charge of the proposed authority, the bill would also allow the authority to purchase the physical assets from Jackson at a “fair market value,” as determined by the federal court.

“It’s disrespectful,” Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said of the bill. “I’m going to do everything I can to try to kill the bill on (the House’s) side if it gets here.”

Bell explained that the bill would “dilute” the power of Jackson residents in governing their own utilities. The position from Henifin, who has emphasized building trust with residents as a key to his success, left Bell shocked, he added.

“I was shocked, dismayed, and really left speechless,” the lawmaker said. “That’s what I’m more disappointed about than anything, is before he made those statements he should have talked to the (Jackson) delegation first.”

Horhn added that the repeated attempts by the state to remove power from Jackson officials begs the question: Why have a city government in the first place?

“We saw it with the airport, we saw it with the 1% sales tax, we saw it with the Capitol Complex Improvement District, we saw it with the Capitol Police, and we’re seeing it now with the water and wastewater,” Horhn said. “At some point, the city of Jackson won’t have any governing it’ll be doing at all.”

Under SB 2628, the city’s water, wastewater and storm water systems would be governed by the nine-person board, which would consult with the federal court to pick a president that would handle administrative tasks, such as hiring personnel, dealing with the infrastructure. The president would work “at the will and pleasure of the board.”

The governor’s five board appointees would have to include:

  • one employee of a large nonhealthcare business with at least 200 employees working within the service area.
  • an owner of a restaurant in the service area.
  • an employee of a nonprofit within the service area.
  • a member of the clergy leading a place of worship within the service area.
  • and an at-large appointee who lives or works in the service area.

The lieutenant governor’s four appointees must include:

  • a small business owner whose primary location is in the service area.
  • an employee of a large health care facility in the service area.
  • an employee of a post-secondary institution in the service area.
  • and an at-large appointee who lives or works in the service area.

Henifin said there were a few changes to Parker’s proposal that earned his support this session: requiring the president to serve as the third-party manager’s deputy until Wingate relieves Henifin of his duties; maintaining Henifin and the court’s control of federal money received so far; adding specifications as to who can be on the board; and defining the authority’s customers as those connected to the Jackson systems as of July 1, 2024.

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