As Jackson, Miss. residents continue to cope with longstanding water safety issues, Gov. Tate Reeves on Thursday (Oct. 20) blamed the water crisis on the “absolute and total incompetence of this mayor and his administration,” Jackson station WAPT reports.
Speaking to reporters at the governor’s mansion, Reeves, a Republican, accused Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of attempting to take control of selecting who wins the contract to run the majority-Black city’s water plants.
According to the Clarion Ledger, Reeves made those remarks in answering questions about competing bid requests between the state and city for private companies to manage the water system.
Lumumba has been critical of attempts at privatization or regionalization of the city's water system and has opposed permanent state takeover, fearing that the city wouldn’t receive a fair share of revenues.
The mayor has stated that long-overdue maintenance and short staffing has plagued the city’s water system. For decades, city officials couldn’t afford to make timely repairs to the water system as the tax base eroded from White flight to the suburbs when public school integration started in 1970.
A flood in late August worsened the problems at one of two water-treatment plants. Before that, state officials issued a boil-water advisory in July that was finally lifted in mid-September.
The Mississippi Emergency Management agency posted a Request for Qualification on Oct. 14 in a search for a private company to manage Jackson’s water treatment facility for one year under an emergency contract. It gives Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency authority to decide which company receives the contract, according to Clarion Ledger.
“Now of those three, not one of them reports to me. And I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't want to pick the operator. All I want is someone capable and competent of managing the system so that it doesn't fail yet again under this mayor,” Reeves said at the press conference.
Three days after the state posted the Request for Qualification, Reeves accused Lumumba of planning to end the city’s cooperation with the Unified Command Structure, Jackson station WJTV reported. The Unified Command Structure is the team that was put in place in August to fix the water crisis.
Reeves claimed that Lumumba’s refusal to participate in the bidding process indicates that the mayor isn’t cooperating in the Unified Command Structure.
In a statement, Lumumba rejected the governor’s allegations and invited him “to have an actual conversation with city leaders and our federal partners about the city’s water treatment plants” instead of “issuing erroneous news releases,” according to WJTV.
The statement explained, “...What the city will not do is agree to a Request for Qualifications, without the entire Unified Command Structure, which includes the City, having had an opportunity to first contribute, revise or approve the language.
“The funds that will be used to hire any firm working at the water treatment facilities will come from the City and its citizens. Therefore, the City, with support from those who truly are invested in the repair and maintenance of the water treatment facilities, will have the final say. The third-party management company will be working for the City. It is only reasonable to expect the City to play a role in hiring that company.”
On Thursday, Reeves said he expects state staff to end its assistance at the water plant by Nov. 17, a date city officials said they can have a water operator in place. But he doubts the city will find a company willing to work with them.
"I will tell you that what we found as we went into the plant on August the 29th is one of the reasons that there was a real challenge for the city to operate the plant in July and August is because virtually every vendor in town that did anything around water treatment facilities, virtually every one of them was unwilling to do any work for the city," Reeves said. "Why? Because they don't get paid.”