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Wingate orders release of SNAP data for JXN Water discounts

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate ordered the release of government benefits data on Tuesday to allow Jackson’s third-party water manager to carry out a first-of-its-kind approach to billing.

The order calls on government agencies, mainly the Mississippi Department of Human Services, to release data to the manager, JXN Water, showing who in the capital city receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Late last year, JXN Water’s Ted Henifin released a new billing system proposal that would raise rates for most but provide discounted bills for those receiving SNAP.

The proposal hit a snag in the last few months, as both MDHS and the U.S. Department of Justice opposed JXN Water’s motions asking the court to require that the agencies release a list of SNAP recipients. The two agencies argued that doing so would violate privacy laws that are a part of the program. MDHS also said it didn’t have the capacity to provide such assistance without funding.

In Tuesday’s order, Wingate says that JXN Water’s SNAP discounts are equivalent to a federal assistance program.

“The prompt implementation of the most recent rate schedule is critical to ensuring that residents pay equitably for public drinking water and sewer services,” the judge wrote.

In its proposal, JXN Water said the new discounts would save those residents 69 cents a day on average. Census data from 2022 shows that almost 10,000 Jackson households, or about 16% of the city’s homes, receive SNAP. When presenting the new structure last November, Henifin said the model would be the first of its kind in the country for a water system.

But since the new water bill system went into place in on Feb. 1, JXN Water says it hasn’t been able to apply the discounts because it doesn’t know who receives SNAP. Wingate’s order this week gives the government agencies until the of month, April 30, to provide the data and requires them to give quarterly updates of the list of recipients starting in July.

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