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Jackson water bill discounts held up over privacy concerns

A focus of JXN Water’s new water bill rate structure, which went into effect on Feb. 1, was to reduce costs for low-income customers. But government concerns over violating Jacksonians’ privacy are holding up those discounts.

The new structure raises rates for most Jackson water customers, something city officials and water experts knew would have to happen in order to fund future maintenance and repairs. Even with $800 million in federal dollars coming to assist the water system, the city needs a stable stream of revenue to eventually move it from under the federal government’s control, as well as to pay for much-needed fixes to the also-failing sewer system.

For the 12,500 Jackson residents signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the new structure is designed to lower what they pay for water. But JXN Water hasn’t been able to give those customers the discount because it doesn’t know who is eligible. In the federal lawsuit overseeing the water system takeover, JXN Water filed a motion requesting the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s SNAP program, to identify which water customers receive the benefit.

MDHS responded in a Feb. 22 letter that not only would doing so violate federal privacy rules, but also that the agency doesn’t have the capacity to take on an “unfunded mandate to assist in running (Jackson’s) water system.” As an alternative, the agency wrote, customers could instead volunteer their information to show they receive SNAP and get the water discount.

Attorney for JXN Water Paul Calamita responded during a status conference last month that going that route would dramatically decrease the number of people receiving the discount.

“When the customer has to do something to get a benefit, typically we would see like a 30-percent participation rate … there’s all sorts of reasons: People don’t trust the government, they are embarrassed, they don’t have time, they just don’t understand,” Calamita told Judge Henry Wingate.

JXN Water then filed a new motion asking the federal government to release the SNAP data, and on Tuesday the U.S. Department of Justice responded in opposition. The federal government does not have the SNAP data nor the authority to require MDHS to release the data, the DOJ wrote. Moreover, as MDHS argued, doing so would break laws protecting the privacy of SNAP recipients.

On Wednesday, JXN Water spokesperson Ameerah Palacios said that, for the time-being, customers looking for the SNAP discount will have to reach out to JXN Water and provide proof of their SNAP status.

When it presented the new structure in November, JXN Water estimated that most SNAP customers in Jackson would see a 31% decrease on their water bills under the new system.

Third-party manager for JXN Water Ted Henifin is also at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency. At Monday’s status conference, he criticized EPA for changing the way the agency is paying for federal funds for the city’s water repairs.

Initially, the EPA had sent large chunks of money to JXN Water for Henifin to draw down on and pay contractors doing work such as managing the treatment plants and fixing broken lines. But in the last couple months, the EPA chose to change the policy, and is now asking Henifin to first submit invoices for the work and get reimbursed afterwards.

In the last two status conferences, Henifin pushed back, arguing that the new system is extending how long it takes him to pay the contractors, and that his reputation is at risk as far as being able to pay them. Jackson he said, had already built a reputation in previous years of not being able to pay contractors on time. Henifin on Monday added that there are $10 million in current unpaid invoices.

The DOJ’s Karl Fingerhood, representing the federal government, said that while Henifin may want to pay contractors quicker, the invoices are still being fulfilled within the legally-required 30-day window. The DOJ added that the change came because the EPA had issues with how Henifin was submitting invoices, such as not tying them to specific deposits.

Wingate then sided with Henifin, calling the EPA policy change “unfortunate” and that there was no notice to the court before the switch happened. He also went after the agency for its delay in handling the Jackson sewer case, saying he was “amazed” by how little the EPA did between the 2013 consent decree and last year, when the case merged with the lawsuit over the city’s water system.

Later in Monday’s status conference, Wingate approved unopposed motions to allow groups representing Jackson community members — the People’s Advocacy Institute and the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign — to be an official party in the water case. Last year, those groups were critical of JXN Water’s transparency, and asked Wingate for more involvement in Henifin’s decision-making, which the judge denied.

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