JACKSON, Mississippi — Sharon Parker received a water bill for $7,431.92 last month. And in Jackson, where she lives alone, that’s not surprising.
Parker is one of more than 20,000 people with delinquent water bills ranging from a few dollars to several thousand. And counterintuitively, a big part of the reason for the high delinquency rate is a system the city installed in 2013 that was supposed to significantly upgrade water metering and billing.
The upgrade was part of a deal signed with the manufacturing giant Siemens for $90 million, that gave Jackson 65,000 new smart meters, among other things.
But as the process wore on, many residents stopped receiving bills, sometimes for months at a time. And leaks that caused bills to skyrocket also went undetected for long periods. Now, the city is scrambling to get people’s bills back on track. It’s a tall order.
“The meters are capturing the consumption, but the consumption isn't turning into bills and the bills aren’t turning into payment,” says Jackson Public Works Director Bob Miller, who says that making all these changes at once was a complex procedure for which the city wasn’t prepared. “I have compared it to a heart-lung transplant; to try to change out a metering system and a billing system is like trying to change out someone's heart and lungs at the same time.”
Parker, for her part, went to the water department several times to have her billing issue fixed after the water company told her basically it’s not their problem, it's hers.
Besides the promise of improving billing, Jackson officials hoped the upgraded system would lead to increased revenue. The city would save money, many thought, because smart meters would beam their readings directly to the water department, reducing the need for workers to make expensive and time-consuming trips to people’s homes. And new meters would mean more-accurate readings that, likely, would translate into the capture of higher water-consumption rates at people’s homes — bringing in more money for the city’s coffers.
Instead, the water department says, the billing crisis has created a $25 million shortfall over the last fiscal year.
“It's akin to someone selling you the most expensive car that they have on the lot, and understanding at the time that they're selling it to you that you can't afford to buy it; you don't understand how to operate it,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told VICE News. “But if they can get you to purchase it, they will.”
Siemens, for its part, says it’s done the work it was contracted to do. A spokesperson told VICE News that the company is still working with the city to “help facilitate successful operation of the metering and billing systems.”
Parker’s latest visit to the water department was fruitful. A billing department employee adjusted her bill down to $2773.20, and put her on a payment plan. “Thank you, Jesus!” she said as she exited the office.
VICE News Tonight went to Jackson, Mississippi, to see what it’s like for residents who can’t afford to pay their water bills.
This segment originally aired March 13, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.