Fewell plant nearly closed in July as city leaders squabbled over how to pay for chemicals, emails show

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – A water plant that state leaders have called a “workhorse” for its performance during Jackson’s water crisis nearly failed this summer after city officials couldn’t agree on how to pay for the extra process chemicals needed to make it work.

Emails obtained by WLBT show that the JH Fewell water treatment plant was at risk of being shut down on July 27, not just because of a lack of chemicals, but because city leaders didn’t couldn’t come to an agreement on how to pay more.

Alum is used to treat turbidity or turbidity in water. When the alum drops to a certain level in the reservoirs, the pumps stop working, explained former deputy director of water operations Mary Carter.

Carter said she tried to notify the administration of the issue a week before the near-shutdown, but to no avail.

“We were arguing, back and forth, for them to give us money,” she said. “It’s up to finance to determine where the money should come from. The only thing I could tell them was that we were short of funds.

At the time, the city had $4,900 left in the chemical station at the Fewell plant. It would take $150,000 to purchase the additional supply.

Carter informed Deputy Director of Administration Sharon Thames of the need for more money on July 19. In an email, she explained why some funds were tied up and could not be used to purchase chemicals for the rest of the year.

“I did my part by requesting the requested funds. If you and others think aquatic plants can do without the elements mentioned, so be it,” Carter wrote.

It wasn’t until July 27 that Carter was told by tax agent Erica Thomas that $150,000 could be transferred from two other positions to make the purchase.

Thomas’ email came about an hour after Carter emailed members of the administration warning them that the plant was just hours away from closing. “Has the money been transferred? she asked. “The well system will have to be closed tonight. CORRECTION: JH Fewell factory to close.

She says the funds were transferred, an emergency order was written, and the alum was trucked out that night, “I think around 7 or 8 a.m.,” she said. .

Fewell is Jackson’s secondary surface water treatment plant, located at the bend of the aqueduct. The facility is licensed to process up to 20 million gallons of water per day.

Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi State Department of Health, called the plant a workhorse, for its ability to ramp up production while the main plant is being repaired. of the city, OB Curtis.

Former public works director Marlin King blamed the near-shutdown on Carter, who was seeking an additional $2 million in stipends to get through the rest of the budget year. He said that request didn’t “add up”.

“We’re starting to shut things down in July… Outside of emergency items, we’ve pretty much started to shut down so we can change budget years. So the question was, ‘how much money do you need to spend the next two months?’ “, did he declare. “We were told she needed almost $2 million. So the Administration Department, they said, ‘That doesn’t fit.’

Jackson’s fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30 of the following year. For the current fiscal year, the city council has allocated $1,050,000 for chemicals for the century-old plant, 15% less than the department spent in 2021.

Fewell plant chemical budget from 2017 to 2022 Budgeted amount Amount spent
2017 $1,212,900 $883,776
2018 $1,242,900 $991,753
2019 $1,212,900 $1,013,956
2020 $1,229,400 $1,216,478
2021 $1,050,000 $1,184,407
2022 $1,050,000 Total unknown

“If you did it with that certain amount of money, if we average what you spent on that chemical over the last nine months, why do you suddenly need $2 million?” said the king. “If you look, there should be an email exchange with Terrence Byrd, where because he’s over the Fewell factory, he fixed it, which is what they really needed, [and it was] about $150,000 to see them through to the end of the year.

Carter said $1,528,053.48 had been spent on chemicals through July 2022, including nearly $341,000 in encumbered money, or funds that have been set aside, but not yet paid, for the products. chemicals he had already received.

King resigned this week, about two weeks after we reported he had been demoted as Director of Public Works. He held a deputy position until his resignation.

Acting Director of Public Works Jordan Hillman said she would not comment on past events but said steps were being taken to ensure a similar incident did not happen again. Among the steps, she is working to improve communications between crews at the city’s two surface water treatment plants, as well as between plant officials and the city’s budget office.

She will also do a thorough review of the budget for the coming year to see what changes, if any, need to be made. “Unfortunately, it was already basically done before I took on this role, but I intend, in the first month of the budget year, to go and review it, to make sure that it is good and get back to the board,” Hillman said. “We also have the ability to move money within categories without going through the board. So if it’s in my supplies category…I can transfer it back and forth.

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