Decree TalksBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Atlanta firm hired to renegotiate Jackson consent decree
Jackson is moving forward with plans to renegotiate its sewer consent decree with the federal government.
Last week, the Jackson City Council approved bringing on attorney Susan Richardson, with Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton, to represent the city in renegotiation efforts.
The contract is expected to run between $100,000 and $160,000, with the city being billed an hourly rate. It is being paid for with monies from the general fund.
The city will engage the firm “almost immediately,” according to Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine, and was working to set up a meeting with EPA officials at press time.
Basically, the city is looking for more time to fulfill its decree requirements.
The city entered into its decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in 2012. Under the order, the city was given 17.5 years to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.
The total cost of the decree could run around $800 million.
“I don’t want to give our exact targets, because it’s a negotiation and we need to keep a negotiating position (but) to say we would like a change in the schedule of deliverables of the decree would be accurate,” he said.
The Atlanta-based firm has handled a number of consent decree cases for major cities, according to Blaine. More specifically, Richardson’s practice areas include environmental law, regulatory and compliance counseling, according to the company’s Web site.
“This is a firm that has done some really substantial work in consent decree renegotiations. They’re one of the boutique firms that specializes in this area,” Blaine said. “We went out and sought the best legal group we could find that works in this area.”
The item was approved on a 6-1 vote. Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps was the lone no vote.
Stamps, who said he’s not opposed to the firm or the renegotiations, wanted more information before signing off on the contract.
“The issue I was pushing … was can we go into executive session to get a scope of the new lawsuit and to meet the lawyers and have some dialogue with where the lawyers are going with this,” he said.
Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote voted in favor of the hire, citing the fact that the counsel was recommended by new Public Works Director Bob Miller.
“Mr. Miller spoke on their behalf and most people (on the council) are pretty comfortable with taking his advice,” he said.
Miller couldn’t be reached for comment.
Foote also cited Richardson’s experience in dealing with consent decree matters.
Under the decree, Jackson was initially required to spend up to $400 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. However, recent estimates show costs of decree requirements have skyrocketed to between $600 million and $800 million.
Under terms of the agreement, the city has to repair a major sewer line along the Pearl River and make improvements to the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. The city also must reduce the occurrences of “sanitary sewer overflows,” which occur when raw sewage enters the environment and public water ways.
Officials are able to renegotiate the decree in part due to changes in federal policy. Previously, the EPA determined consent decree amounts based on an area’s median income.
However, that mechanism did not show how those living below the poverty line would be affected by decree costs. Decrees are typically funded through increases in water and sewer rates.
In 2013, for example, Jackson city officials cited the decree as the reason it needed to raise water and sewer rates by 29 and 100 percent respectively.
Under new federal guidelines the EPA is now required to guage how potential water and sewer increases could affect an area’s poorest residents.
“Instead of focusing on median income (the EPA now focuses) on the lower 20 to 25-percent income levels and looks at what rates (would be necessary to do the work), and what impact (higher rates) would have on those folks,” Deputy City Attorney Terry Williamson told the council last year.
Per capita income in the capital city is around $19,042 a year, about $12,000 less than the national average. The median household income in Jackson is $33,080 a year, about $26,000 less than the national median, Census Bureau data shows.
Based on the city’s lower median incomes, Blaine said the consent decree places a major burden on even its more affluent residents. “For a city that has a median income below the national average, it would be a challenge for us to meet the schedule and deliverables that are set out in the decree,” he said.
Richardson will be paid about $20 more an hour than Aqualaw, the legal firm brought on to represent the city in the West Rankin lawsuit.
Previously, the city was attempting to block the West Rankin Utility Authority from building its own wastewater treatment plant.
Recently, the council agreed to drop the suit and allow the authority to move forward.
“There was some discussion on why them and why we’re paying them $20 more an hour, but it was seen as a pretty reasonable thing to do,” Foote said.