Some Jackson residents still face water billing issues despite new systems in place

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Rashah McChesney, Gulf States Newsroom

This story is part of a crowdsourced project investigating utility billing issues in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Do you have a utility bill you’d like us to look into? Submit it here, and with your permission, we may use it in one of our monthly features.


Some Jackson, Mississippi, residents started 2024 off by getting their first water bills in years. That’s because after more than a decade of chaos, JXN Water, the utility that manages Mississippi’s capital city’s water system, says it’s at a turning point. 

For years, customers in Jackson have dealt with missing bills, unusually high charges, inaccurate readings, undetected leaks and other issues that have made paying for the amount of water they’ve actually used troublesome. 

To fix that, the new court-appointed management of Jackson’s water provider has tossed out the old tech and started fresh. There’s a new billing system, a customer call center and a privately funded customer assistance fund

All this acts as the carrot to get customers to pay for their water again, and to get the long-underfunded utility the revenue it needs to keep the water flowing. The stick comes in the planned return of account shut-offs when customers don’t pay. 

These bills, however, have been much more expensive than expected. Rates have risen while the planned automated discount for low-income customers who receive SNAP benefits is locked in a court battle. Beyond that, some customers now have balances north of a thousand dollars. In some cases, the total amount seems to be based on water that the customers used in previous months but were never billed for. 

“Frankly everybody gets screwed at the end of the day if our water and wastewater utilities are not functioning as they should, which requires investment,” Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, the executive director of The Center of Water and Security Cooperation, said. “The problem is that we forget that there’s people at the end of this line.”

“How am I going to pay this big amount this fast?”

Jeremey Brown stands outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home on Feb. 23, 2024.
Jeremey Brown stands outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home on Feb. 23, 2024. Brown said he rarely received a water bill during the four years he’s lived in the city until getting a massive, $1,396.99 bill in January. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

For most of Jeremy Brown’s four years in Jackson, he didn’t receive a water bill.

He joked that the water must be free, but he never took advantage of it because of the sludge-like color that poured from his hose. JXN Water says it regularly tests the water to make sure it’s safe, but Brown’s family relies on jugs of water for drinking and he only uses the tap for showering, making sure to let it get real hot first. 

Then in January, his first water bill arrived. The balance: $1,396.99. 

“I thought it was a check when I first got it,” Brown said. “How am I going to pay this big amount this fast?”

The actual amount for his January usage wasn’t too high — about $120. Brown believes the rest of his remaining balance is for bills he never received. JXN Water did not respond to an email from the Gulf States Newsroom with questions for this story, including the source of Brown’s balance. 

It’s not unusual for water providers to charge customers for past bills after an error on the utility’s part, especially after new meters have been installed. But there’s no standard for how far back they’re allowed to hold customers accountable for payment. It could be months or even years. The missing consistency comes from the fragmented nature of a water utility world that’s rarely regulated.

“It raises this bigger question of what is the standard for utilities and what do they owe their customers? They don’t answer that question,” Campbell-Ferrari said. “Should there be a standard in place that says, ‘Hey, if you messed up, sure you need that revenue, but you also can’t drop that bill on your customers?’” 

JXN Water is under more scrutiny and oversight than traditional utilities. U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate oversees the third-party manager he appointed to fix the system and Wingate has offered praise and defended the management. 

The water provider also offers payment plans, which Brown said he’ll look into. But he doesn’t believe it’s fair for JXN Water to be asking for so much — especially when he could have budgeted for that amount if he received his bills to begin with. 

“If you think every month, you’re paying $116, it’s not hard to pay,” Brown said. “Compared to just up and pay $1,300.”

“It’s a glitch in the system” 

Catherine Lacy stands outside her Jackson, Mississippi, home on Feb. 23, 2024.
Catherine Lacy stands outside her Jackson, Mississippi, home on Feb. 23, 2024. Lacy had consistently received water bills every month since she moved into her home in 2003, but that changed when her December bill went missing. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

For the 20 years that Catherine Lacy has owned her home, she’s received a water bill every month without interruption — which could be a record in Jackson.

That streak ended in December, however, when that month’s bill went missing. When she checked online in January, she saw she owed JXN Water $608.24 — a much larger amount than the usual $60 or $80 she’s typically billed for. 

When Lacy called the utility to find out what happened, a representative told her she had a leak. Water leaks can be hidden, leading to thousands of dollars in water going wasted without a customer seeing so much as a drip. A high bill is one of the most reliable warnings a leak could be happening. 

The leak could have also been hidden because before Lacy received her large bill, her monthly water usage was estimated as the city worked to install new meters.

But Lacy is convinced there is no leak. No puddles of water have formed on her property, and a plumber did not find any evidence of a leak. 

“It’s a glitch in the system,” Lacy said. “Because I’m not the only one in Jackson having problems with the water system.”

Lacy’s mistrust of Jackson’s water provider’s system is shared throughout the city, where residents have dealt with boil water notices for decades — for some, their entire lives — on top of a decade of billing issues.

Those billing troubles began in 2013 when faulty water meters were installed across the city, leading to an endemic of missing and inaccurate bills. 

Some utilities will wipe clean whatever someone owes if they can prove they have a leak. JXN Water did not say if it’s one of them. 

“If one were to gather policy documents for 100 different systems, you would find 30 or 40 different approaches,” George Kunkel, principal at Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, said. 

Lacy’s current balance is now more than $1,200, which she said she’ll fight. She’s on a fixed income and can’t afford to pay so much for water, not without cutting back on essentials — like food. It’s gotten to the point where it’s causing sleepless nights. When she can sleep, the worries continue in her dreams.

“It’s so high. I dream that my water is going to get cut off and I’m not able to pay,” Lacy said. “It’s not fair.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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