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(JACKSON, Miss.) — With crisis after crisis plaguing the water infrastructure in Jackson, Mississippi, the city government has, for months, included a message on its website’s water information page explaining where people can send private donation checks if they want to help.
Yet despite issues ranging from a lack of water pressure in city schools last month to a winter storm completely knocking out running water for some residents during the holidays, ABC News has learned that Jackson’s municipal government has received more than $100,000 in donations — but has yet to spend a penny of the money.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says the city could use the funds to buy water filters at some point this year, though when that would happen remains unclear.
“At this time, the money still sits there,” Lumumba told ABC News in an interview last month. “It has not been touched.”
The water problems in Jackson date back years, but 2022 and the beginning of 2023 have seen residents of Mississippi’s largest city suffer from multiple incidents in a row.
As ABC News reported last week as part of the “Through the Cracks” series, in addition to more than $814 million being provided to Jackson through federal funds, Mississippi received over $400 million in 2022 from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to address water infrastructure. However, the full repair of the long-troubled water system will take years to complete.
“We have gotten to the point of tying a bag over the faucet to remind you not to use it,” said Glenda Barner, a 70-year-old Jackson resident who owns a small business in the city. “I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope on it being completely repaired in my lifetime.”
In the meantime, some residents must contend with short-term solutions like using bottled water and filtered water.
‘A positive influence’
Amid the water crises, Jackson’s water information webpage continues to say that donation checks can be made payable to a group called the Central Mississippi Growth Foundation and mailed to Jackson City Hall. But the page does not specify what the donated funds are used for.
Nor does it say that funds that have already been contributed to the foundation have yet to be spent — despite a previous message on the city webpage saying that “The City of Jackson would like to thank all of the wonderful people who have leaned in to help in our time of need. We appreciate your decision to be a positive influence in these challenging times.”
The Central Mississippi Growth Foundation is a decades-old economic development organization organized by the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership. It is separate from the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, a highly publicized collaborative group that has collected donations and distributed items such as bottled water.
The foundation does not have any employees, according to chamber vice president Debi Green, though it does include what is known as the “Mayor’s Fund” to handle contributions such as the ones received in response to the water crisis. “As it relates to donations received in 2022 to the CMGF for the ‘Mayor’s Fund,’ and any expenses paid out, we will defer these questions to the City of Jackson for review and reply,” Green told ABC News.
However, when asked about the Mayor’s Fund, Mayor Lumumba told ABC News, “As I understand it, one who has immediate access and control and dominion over the account would be the Chamber of Commerce, which is not a division of the city. I believe that when requests are made, then they will remit a check for those requests.”
Dr. Hyunseok Hwang, an assistant professor who studies nonprofit management and community resource mobilization at the University of Houston, said the Jackson city government’s approach of accepting crisis-response donations through a separate foundation — instead of by direct contributions to the city, a task force, or nonprofit groups like United Way — is not the traditional way of conducting business.
Hwang reviewed IRS filings from the foundation and said that since it is classified as a 501(c)(6), an organization category often used by chambers of commerce and business leagues, contributions to it might not be tax deductible.
“Right now, it will be better for the city and the mayor by themselves to provide better accountability and transparency to the donors and the citizens,” Hwang told ABC News.
$100K raised but $0 spent
Through a request filed under the Mississippi Public Records Act, ABC News has learned that the Central Mississippi Growth Foundation received $102,879.61 in “water crisis donations” between August and November 2022.
Although contributions came from churches and individuals, the vast majority of the funds came from UnitedHealth Group, the country’s largest health insurance corporation and the firm listed by the City of Jackson’s as its health insurance contractor for municipal employees.
“During the Mississippi water crisis in October 2022, we donated $99,000 to the Central Mississippi Growth Foundation to provide water filters to members of the community in need,” said a statement provided to ABC News by UnitedHealth Group spokesperson Christina Witz.
Witz did not answer additional questions submitted by ABC News. She did not say whether the company is aware that the funds have not been used or whether they were aware of any timetable for providing water filters to residents.
“I know that the money, from what I’ve been told recently, is not an account that I check on,” Mayor Lumumba said. “It’s not an account I’ve ever personally drafted from.”
Lumumba said that UnitedHealth Group’s contribution came after a discussion with the insurer about both water and the company’s relationship with the city.
“We had a lot of conversation about what were the best filters. We were told of a specific filter that is approved and has a certain grade in terms of what it is able to filter out within water systems,” Lumumba said.
‘This is a marathon’
The good news for Jackson residents is that crews are planning major improvements to the city’s water system, and a citywide advisory to boil water is no longer in effect — though rehabilitating the water infrastructure in the capital city will be a lengthy and arduous task.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear exactly how or when the filters sought by the city at the peak of the crisis will be made available to residents.
Lumumba said he expects filters to be purchased and distributed within this calendar year after a vendor is selected.
“The people who are looking and trying to identify a vendor are also endeavoring to do other efforts and aims of recovery, and so that’s not the thing that they’re exclusively working on — so no, a vendor has not been selected,” the mayor said, adding that there are challenges in finding a stockpile of filters.
“This is a marathon. This is not a sprint in any regard for the City of Jackson,” Lumumba said.
The mayor also said he did not know how many filters would be provided, but he does not believe the funds will be enough to provide a filter for everyone in Jackson.
Barner, a lifelong Jackson resident, said clean drinking water should be every person’s right and that the filters should be provided to low-income or disabled senior citizens.
Recently, a local community organization arranged to have basic Brita faucet water filter systems handed out to some residents, Barner said — but this initiative appears to be separate from the municipal one described by Lumumba.
“We have such a long way to go and so much that has to be done,” Barner said. “In a city this size and a city who has leaders who are supposed to be competent and smart people, we shouldn’t have to go through this.”
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