Rebuilding trust: How Ted Henifin hopes to repair the relationship between Jacksonians and their water system
JACKSON - Eager to spread the news of a massive federal investment in his city’s drinking water system, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called several town hall events over the last few months to update his constituents.
But to the residents in attendance, the $800 million coming to Jackson is far less tangible than the problems right in front of them, as many directed the same, commonly heard refrains towards Lumumba:
What is with my water bill?
Why am I being charged for water that’s unsafe to drink?
Who’s going to fix the sewage spewing onto my lawn?
“I’m being charged for water I’m not even using,” one man said at a Forest Hill High School town hall in February, saying the water he was being charged for was leaking across his yard.
A woman in attendance said her monthly bill went from $55 to over $200, which she eventually just refused to pay. At another town hall in December, a resident said he got a bill in the thousands even though the water from his tap was brown.
Unable to speak to each person’s problem, Lumumba echoed a hopeful sentiment: While the city didn’t have the resources it needed before, it does now, and help is on the way.
While much has happened for the future of Jackson’s water since last fall – a federal takeover that placed a third-party team in control of the system’s improvement, the $800 million investment provided through several federal funding streams, a grant program that’s already eliminated $8 million in resident’s water bill debt in less than a week – the process of restoring trust among residents in what comes out of their taps is a long road ahead.
“I mean we’re going on, what, 40 years of distrust in Jackson’s water system?” said Brooke Floyd, a coordinator with the JXN People’s Assembly.
Floyd, a Jackson native, mother, and former teacher, said she distrusted the water even as a child, recalling her grandparents boiling the water for as long as she remembers.
“People are centering this on (the current) administration, but this is a deep-seated distrust that goes for years,” Floyd said. “So, I think it’s going to take some time for residents to understand, and it’s going to take some showing; you have to show people that the billing is going to get straightened out, and that our water is safe and that the pipes work, all those things.”
Last November, a federal judge appointed Ted Henifin to be the one in charge of lifting Jackson’s water system into a state of self-reliance.
Henifin recently sat down with Mississippi Today to talk about his game plan, as well as rebuilding trust in a water system among the people who have to pay for it.
Henifin said restoring credibility comes down to three changes: fixing the billing system, providing consistent water pressure by replacing small water lines and finally clarifying the existence of lead in Jackson’s distribution system.
After working for 40 years in Virginia, it wasn’t until getting to Jackson that Henifin realized being a municipal utility worker could earn him public notoriety.
“People will recognize me pretty much everywhere I go, which is a little weird,” Henifin told Mississippi Today at his office. “I’ll be going out to dinner and people will say, ‘Oh, you’re the water guy.’”
But Henifin is in a city where such basic services – whether it’s garbage pickup, sewage disposal or drinking water – regularly leave residents without guarantees. He’s also in a position where few very, if any, municipal water professionals have ever sat.
In one of the largest federal interventions of a local utility system in American history, the U.S. government equipped Henifin with far-reaching authority that allows him to bypass local and state regulation, as well as nearly a billion dollars to spend on projects and a $400,000 personal salary.
His new title is chief executive officer of JXN Water, a nonprofit established to carry out the federal order put in place in November.
Although he’s heading a non-public entity that can avoid public record laws and government procurement rules, Henifin said he’s committed to transparency.
At the December town hall, Henifin waited afterwards to greet attendees, handing out his phone number to anyone who asked. While he said connecting with people directly is important for him to build credibility with Jackson residents, he admitted it’s been a little overwhelming at times trying to get back to everyone who reaches out.
But restoring trust is more than just being a personable face. Henifin said he wants residents, who will have to fund the water system once he’s left and the federal money has dried up, to feel that they’re paying into something worthwhile and that they’re being charged fairly.
“The billing system’s not helping us whatsoever at the moment, sending out terrible bills and continuing to struggle answering calls,” he said. “The trust-building where (residents) connect to us, which is really billing, is the big piece.”
While it’s a widely accepted practice for cities to charge customers based on how much water they consume, Jackson hasn’t had a reliable metering system in place for years due to the fallout from a failed Siemens contract, and residents are constantly burdened with inconsistent or incorrect bills.
As part of a debt relief program – funded through a new social safety net grant created under the CARES Act – Jackson last week began offering to correct water bills for customers who felt they were given incorrect charges. In less than a week, the city corrected $8 million in residents’ debt.
Recognizing the damage the broken water meters had done to the whole system’s credibility, Henifin in January laid out a novel approach in a financial proposal he was required to submit by the federal order: charging residents based on their property value. He conceded then that, as far as he knew, the only city to try something similar was Milwaukee with its wastewater system.
According to an analysis he presented, this system wouldn’t change much for the lower-income and average rate-payers: the median single-family household would see a $50 monthly bill; lower-value property owners would pay slightly less; and and higher-value owners would pay slightly more, with bills capped at $150.
What would change, Henifin explained, is that residents would be getting the same bill amount every month, taking away the monthly mystery that has haunted Jackson customers since the Siemens fiasco.
But on Wednesday, lawmakers passed a bill in the Senate that would ban charging customers for water in a way that doesn’t include consumption. The bill is headed back to a committee for further debate.
Henifin called out the Legislature’s efforts to interfere during a recent town hall at Millsaps college.
“There are so many things we pay for that aren’t directly connected to our use,” he. “We all pay for schools, not all of us have children. We all pay for trash, some people put out tons of trash, some people only put out a bit.
“We’re just stuck in this, ‘water has to be based on consumption’ mindset, but so many other things that are for society we pay for without even giving it much thought, because it’s all about a community that’s supporting the other members of the community.”
Lumumba has yet to comment on the idea, saying he hasn’t seen Henifin’s proposal.
The JXN Water CEO will spend the next few weeks and months at roundtables with community members to hear their thoughts on his idea, among others he put in his January financial plan.
Trusting the water
In 2015, test results for lead in Jackson’s water system showed samples above the “action level,” or legal limit, of 15 parts per billion (ppb). Just months later, the state Department of Health found that nearly a quarter of homes it tested had lead levels above 15 ppb.
The Environmental Protection Agency has since required the city to issue quarterly notices to residents, reminding pregnant women and children to take extra precautions before drinking the water. The EPA requirement is still in place for Jackson because the city has yet to complete a corrosion control plan to ensure no lead or copper dissolves into the water during the treatment process.
“How can you have trust if you have to have that statement on everything you put out about the water?” Henifin said.
He said the system to complete the corrosion control, which the city has put off completing for years, should be in place this summer, which would then allow the city to stop sending the quarterly notices.
But even after fixing the treatment process, the city will still have to ensure there’s no lead in the water lines of the distribution system. Henifin said he has a contractor set to do an inventory analysis of Jackson’s piping to determine if there are any lead service lines, and said that information should be presented to the public within a year.
Jackson is facing multiple lawsuits that allege the city exposed residents to lead, including one representing 600 children that alleges a coverup dating back to 2013.
Danyelle Holmes, National Social Justice Organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign, said that even with the city upgrading its water lines, there is still a concern of the presence of lead in the city’s homes, especially in poorer neighborhoods where pipe replacements are less feasible.
“If they’re old pipes they need to be replaced,” Holmes said. “We know that in south Jackson, and in west Jackson as well, a large portion of those homes are old homes, and those are the homes that we’re concerned will be disproportionately affected.”
In the city’s latest quarterly notice, it disclosed that during the July-December testing period it found the 90th percentile of results showed 6 ppb of lead; while 15 ppb is the legal limit, health experts say that no amount of lead is safe to consume.
Last year, a series of tests conducted by the Clarion Ledger and Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found positive results for lead throughout Jackson, with the highest being about 6 ppb at Jackson State University.
Restoring pressure: replacing lines, plugging leaks
Because of leaks throughout the distribution system, the city of Jackson loses about half of the water that it treats and puts out everyday. On average, water systems around the country lose about 15% of the water they put out.
Henifin’s team, led by former Jackson planning director Jordan Hillman, is finding major leaks throughout the city, he said, in some cases by detecting chlorine in puddles that wouldn’t otherwise be there. He projects that, through contracted work, they’ll be able to fix some of the larger leaks within the next two years.
The other issue, though, is the city’s small diameter water lines. The modern standard is that water lines should be at least 6 inches in diameter; Jackson, though, has over 100 miles of lines smaller than that.
Henifin projected it’ll take between five to 10 years to make the necessary fixes, with the goal of doing about 20 miles of replacements each year.
“Hopefully soon after we’ll get the anecdotal stories that people say, ‘Wow, the water’s great, it’s no longer discolored,’” Henifin said. “So, if we get a couple of those stories out by fall, I think by next year we could have some movement towards trust building if (we fix) the billing system, pipe replacement, and we get the corrosion control. Those three things should help to at least begin to build some trust.”
Optimistically speaking, Henifin added, if his team of contractors plug enough of the city’s leaks, Jackson could reach a point within the next year where it wouldn’t need the century-old J.H. Fewell, one of the system’s two treatment plants. City officials have for years hoped to retire Fewell, which would save Jackson “significant money” from not having to operate it, Henifin said.
Pending the legislative session and feedback from upcoming community roundtables and city leaders, Henifin hopes to have the new billing system in place by October.
On Tuesday, Henifin also mentioned early talks of Jackson’s wastewater system, which is under an EPA consent decree, joining the drinking water system in the federal stipulated order. But he said that decision is at least a few weeks away.
Looking ahead, Henifin is already thinking about how he plans to leave the city. In his January proposal, he looked at the various options for long-term governance, and suggested the best option would be placing the water system under a corporate nonprofit, similar to JXN Water but with a board of governors made of local constituents.
Under that model, Jackson would retain ownership of the water system assets, and contract out its services. Henifin said while he hadn’t thoroughly researched it, he didn’t know of any water systems in the U.S. with a similar model.
He added that he didn’t think it’d be wise to give the city back full control of the system, citing local politics and obstacles in issuing contracts. He said he’s had that conversation with Jackson leadership, and thinks they may come around to the idea at some point.
“I don’t believe the city has demonstrated that they’re able to do this,” Henifin said. “With a track record like that, what would make any of us think that changes just because there’s an influx of federal dollars?”
On Wednesday, proposed legislation to create a state-controlled regional authority over Jackson’s water system died in the House.
Floyd, the coordinator with JXN People’s Assembly, said she’s encouraged by the work Henifin has done so far, and thinks he’s serious about winning over residents’ trust.
“There’s going to be a lack of trust with whoever is (running the water system),” Floyd said. “I don’t think people are really that worried with (Henifin) being from wherever and coming from the outside. When is the water going to be fixed and when is my bill going to be fixed? That’s the number one concern for everybody.”
In conversations with those affected by the ongoing water crisis, Henifin said he’s been surprised by the empathy he’s gotten from Jacksonians.
“The folks have very high expectations that I might be able to make a difference, but they also seem willing to be patient,” he said. “Much more so than if I was in their shoes and had lost water pressure for weeks during the summer and again at Christmas. I’ve found it actually to be increasing my personal pressure to succeed because so many people have been really nice about encouraging me.”