If there’s value in stating the obvious, State Auditor Shad White mined it for all it’s worth with his recent report on the financial troubles of Mississippi’s capital city.
There wasn’t a whole lot new in what White’s agency uncovered from reviewing the annual audits of Jackson conducted by private accounting firms since 2003. (By law, the state auditor is not allowed to conduct its own audits of municipalities.)
The report found that Jackson has dramatically decreased in population, that its debt has significantly increased, and that its water system — the largest drain on the city’s treasury — has been a leaky mess, with scads of people getting away without paying for some or all of the water they have been consuming.
News media accounts, though, have already amply laid all of this out and then some.
One of the major surprises in the auditor’s report was actually a positive. The property tax burden on Jackson businesses and residents, once population loss and inflation are factored in, is about the same in 2021 as it was in 2003. Usually, when a metropolitan area loses as much population as Jackson has — 18% in those 18 years — those who remain are socked with a heavier tax load. That apparently has not been the case.
What has been the case, though, is a water system that is not only structurally disastrous but financially so as well.
One of the more interesting statistical tidbits White produced was a comparison of Jackson’s water system to that of two similarly sized Southern cities — Savannah, Georgia, and Pasadena, Texas. In 2021, the most recent year reported, Jackson’s water system posted a nearly $28 million loss, while the water systems in the other two cities turned a profit of about $10 million each.
There are at least two reasons for the disparity. Jackson doesn’t collect enough money, and it uses a whole lot more water. The average consumption per person in Jackson was 547 gallons per day, compared to 413 gallons in Savannah and 134 in Texas. It is hard to believe that the average consumer in Jackson takes that many more showers or waters the lawn that much more. More than likely, the disparity is a reflection of the well-documented leaks that abound throughout the system and the city’s slowness in plugging those leaks.
A federally appointed water czar is in charge of fixing the problem. He has more than $800 million with which to work.
That will go a long way to stopping the leaks and putting the infrastructure back in order. But in order to cure the operating deficits, it’s going to require a lot more revenue coming in from users. Ted Henifin, the water czar, proposed tacking the cost of the water system onto property taxes. The idea, though, got shot down by a public revolt that culminated in the state Legislature this year mandating that water bills everywhere be based on actual consumption.
Henifin’s property-tax solution would have been a quicker, cheaper way to boost collections, but it wasn’t politically palatable. Thus, Jackson is left with continuing to replace its 50,000 faulty residential meters, cracking down on residents who have bypassed the meters, and being more dogged about collecting outstanding bills.
It will take a minor miracle for Henifin to pull off this turnaround. Here’s hoping he is a miracle worker.
Greenwood Commonwealth, May 16
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