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Jackson, Miss.' water utility says the system is improving. Others disagree

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The water system in Jackson, Miss. has made headlines for the wrong reasons. Residents have faced service disruptions, boil-water notices and inaccurate water bills. The billing system was so messed up that the utility was banned from cutting off service for unpaid bills. Now it says it's made enough improvements to justify those shutoffs. Here's Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: If you've ever tried to read your water bill, it could feel like you need to be a lawyer to figure it out - or an accountant. Lucky for James Henley, he's both. And after his Facebook posts about his water bill in the fall, he can add a new title.

JAMES HENLEY: It got so many reads that Facebook sent me something that said I could become an influencer if I wanted to (laughter). That was hilarious.

BISAHA: He remembers going nearly two months without safe tap water.

HENLEY: Most people in Jackson have never drank Jackson water. You would bathe in it, and you would cook with it, but you couldn't really do that anymore either.

BISAHA: And beyond the health concerns, there are those bills. Jackson has a history of inaccurate, expensive and sometimes just missing water bills, which is why shutoffs haven't happened in a long time.

TED HENIFIN: People have gotten into the habit of maybe not paying or not getting a bill, or not even recognizing they need a bill.

BISAHA: That's Ted Henifin. He was appointed by a district judge about a year ago to fix Jackson's water system. He's been installing new water meters across the city to make bills accurate. And now he says they need to bring back shutoffs to pay for Jackson's underfunded water system.

HENIFIN: We have to do a whole education campaign to help people understand that water is not free. We're all in this together. Everyone's got to do their part.

BISAHA: He says rates will be reasonable and affordable, but people have to pay their bills. James Henley isn't so sure.

HENLEY: When I heard that they were saying, we're going to start cutting off poor people's water because they haven't paid these extravagant bills that we sent them, I sat down and said, well, that doesn't make any sense 'cause these bills are based on false data.

BISAHA: What Henley means by false data is that some customers, like him, have not been billed for how much water they actually use. Instead, their bills are estimated. That's the case for people who don't have a new water meter yet. Henley's bill was estimated at 160 bucks for a one-story house he owns. But the thing is, Henley doesn't live there. It's his law office.

HENLEY: Obviously, you have to go to the restroom. Obviously, you have to wash your hands. I'm not cooking here. I'm not bathing here. I'm not doing anything here that would raise my bill to that extent.

BISAHA: He called to get someone out to read his meter, and they came two months later. Henley recorded the moment on his phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENLEY: Jackson Water finally sent someone out to read my meter. Problem is, my meter hasn't been read in so long, they can't figure out where the meter is.

BISAHA: It took two days to find it, and the meter reading was way less than the number on his bill - like, off by more than 230,000 gallons. So Henley did what any good accountant would and made a spreadsheet. He crunched the numbers and showed they overcharged him over the years by more than $3,000. Jackson Water disputes Henley's version of what happened, but they did pay him back.

HENLEY: And they adjusted my water bill by the $3,208. They gave me a credit.

BISAHA: He documented all this on Facebook to show other people how to possibly get their own refunds. The utility says nearly all of its customers now have new meters, and it won't shut off water for anyone still getting estimates. They also say they have payment plans to help customers keep their water on. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephan Bisaha