Friday, September 10, 2010
After a weeks-long political football game over funding for downtown Jackson water improvements, Gov. Haley Barbour switched course today, telling Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. in a letter that the three-member state Bond Commission had voted unanimously to approve a no-interest, short-term $6 million loan to fund infrastructure repairs near state offices. Treasurer Tate Reeves made the motion, which Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood affirmed.
City spokesman Chris Mims told the Jackson Free Press this morning that he was not aware whether the Bond Commission planned to discuss the contentious water loan at this morning's meeting. The commission's office confirmed that it was not on the agenda. But by this afternoon, Mims had learned that the Mississippi Bond Commission, which consists of Gov. Haley Barbour, State Treasurer Tate Reeves and Attorney General Jim Hood, will allow the city to get the $6 million for water and sewer infrastructure repairs.
"We hear they have voted to give us the bond as dictated by the Legislature. So we can access it as early as October, I believe," Mims said this afternoon. "The city is very pleased that we were able to access the $6 million, and we're pleased that the governor and the mayor were able to have conversations that lead to this resolution."
The Department of Finance and Administration said in August that the city had not completed an application for an interest-free $6 million water and sewer bond that the state Legislature approved last session, so the State Bond Commission did not address the loan, during its July 12 meeting. The unexpected absence of the money prompted Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., to ask the Commission to reconsider its decision. The Jackson Free Press reported in August that the city of Jackson was the only municipality singled out for an application process in the bond legislation of several hundreds pages. Neither the legislation or the Bond Commission itself provided any specific instructions as to what the application should look like. The Bond Commission's reluctance to reward the bonds without application was complicated by remarks that both Reeves and Barbour made to the media and in a letter that governor wrote to the mayor, indicating that the two of them might be withholding the money for reasons beyond the lack of application.
"There are several hundred (bond) projects that are outstanding. The entities have to convince two of the three commission members that it makes sense from the state taxpayers' standpoint that the long-term benefits outweigh the costs," Reeves told the Jackson Free Press in early August.
That statement prompted a strong response from Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson: "(Reeves) can ask for any information he wants, but he cannot make a decision that the project should not be funded, which seems to be what he is talking about."
Brown added: "The bill is very specific about the steps that MDA must go through, and also very clear that MDA is the authority, not Tate Reeves, not the Bond Commission. So Tate Reeves speaking on behalf saying he wasn't given the information--there's nothing in this bill that gives him the authority to even ask for the information."
An Aug. 16 letter from Barbour to Johnson reflected Reeves' tone that the mayor might not know what he was asking for: "I support replacing the old brittle pipes with new reliable distribution or collection systems; however, one $6 million project will benefit only a small percentage of ratepayers and barely mitigate future maintenance and repair costs associated with further degradation of the system." Barbour went on to suggest then that the city "take full advantage" of other funding options and loan programs.
Johnson responded with his own letter, making it clear to the governor that the city would explore all available funding options, and pointing out the legislative branch's intention in approving the $6 million loan: "to immediately fund improvements around the Capitol Complex in order to minimize the level of disruption of state government that was experienced in January of this year."
In today's letter, Barbour was much more conciliatory, saying that the Bond Commission would allow the city to draw down $6 million this law to fund the improvements. "Since the bonds themselves will not be issued until next year, we will need to continue our discussions regarding a satisfactory payment schedule between the City and State," Barbour wrote. "I have asked my staff to set up a meeting next week with your staff and the relevant persons from DEQ, MDA and the Health Department."
He added: "As Governor of the State, I pledge to continue working in cooperation with the City to ensure that we remain fiscally responsible while providing the necessary infrastructure improvements for our Capital City."