Starkville resident Kristin Fuhrmann lives in the Northgate subdivision on the north side of town and said she has murky, brown water flow out of her faucets a few times a month.
Citing her family’s home as a “major investment,” she is distressed not only at the fact she never knows when there will be brown water but is continuously worried the water pressure for her neighborhood will not be strong enough to put out a potential fire.
“When I found out recently that the pressure and fire hydrants in our neighborhood might not be strong enough to put out a fire and protect our investment that we’ve worked so hard for, I was very upset,” Fuhrmann said.
American Rescue Plan Act spending can go toward improving water and sewer infrastructure within municipalities such as this. While some money will be allocated to repair Northgate’s water line, the funds may not be enough to fully fix Fuhrmann and several other residents’ water issues.
The board of aldermen voted Tuesday to spend the majority of its ARPA funds on city parks. Starkville received nearly $3.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds in August 2021 and will receive $3.2 million more by December 2022, totaling $6.4 million in COVID-19 aid. ARPA funds are allocated to municipalities and local governments that were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Broad usage categories for ARPA include tourism, water/sewer/broadband, assistance to businesses and families disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and premium pay for public employees, according to federal guidelines.
In Tuesday’s ARPA plan, the board approved $500,000 to be allocated for the hiring of two new officers to the Starkville Police Department, $200,000 to address Northgate’s water issues, more than $3.5 million to improve all city parks and $2 million to fund two fields at Cornerstone Park.
Working with board attorney Chris Latimer to create a master plan for ARPA funds, Mayor Lynn Spruill said spending this aid on parks will have the greatest impact on the greatest number of residents.
“This is one-time money,” Spruill said. “We will most likely never see $4 million again that we can legitimately use for our parks. In this case, there are multiple needs. We have neglected our parks for over 20 years, and I think this is an opportunity to impact our community with all of these parks, which are scattered from north to south to east to west.”
Cornerstone Park, located on Highway 25, will be a baseball and softball-focused recreation facility with an emphasis on hosting tournaments. The $22 million project is funded through a 1-percent sales tax on restaurants and hotels, which began in August 2019. Cornerstone is still under construction.
The tax also aimed to fund upgrades to existing parks facilities.
Because of an increase in prices due to the pandemic, two fields in the original Cornerstone plan were cut. The $2 million in ARPA funds will restore those fields.
Beatty: More money needed for infrastructure
While all board members supported funding two new police officers, Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty passionately expressed his concern for the water issues the Northgate residents are experiencing and said more funds should be spent on improving infrastructure.
Beatty said ARPA funds are intended to address immediate needs of the city, and the board should be focused on improving the quality of life for residents.
“To allocate the rest of this to parks would be irresponsible of the city,” Beatty said. “First of all, it would be jumping the gun. We’re not under any three-month, six-month time frame to spend any of this money. We need to look at some of these areas that this bill was intended for us to spend it on.”
To fully fund a new water line at Northgate, Beatty said, will cost around $350,000, almost double what the board approved.
Spruill said Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and the Mississippi Legislature also have ARPA funds to spend and would potentially use some of their federal aid to match project funds from local entities and municipalities. To better the chances of doubling money, Spruill said she wanted the city to pass an ARPA fund plan Tuesday, instead of waiting longer to discuss the usage of the aid, so she can go ahead and present the city’s “funding desires” to the state.
“If they were willing to match dollar for dollar, and we were going to use $4 million, then perhaps there’s another $4 million out there,” she said.
Only if this money is matched will Northgate have the full amount to fund a new water line.
Beatty also cited the increase in homelessness throughout the pandemic and said he believed some funds should be spent helping business owners whose companies may have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and assisting residents who may have been evicted from their homes, such as tenants who lived at the apartment complex on Catherine Street.
Starkville Strong representative Cate Van Hurdle spoke at Tuesday’s meeting on homelessness in Starkville. She said citizens are experiencing a near 3,000 percent increase in homelessness due to evictions and hardships caused by the pandemic and asked the board to reconsider its plan to spend $4 million on park improvements.
“These funds are intended to address immediate needs specifically brought on by the pandemic, and they need to be first and foremost administered to those populations most directly negatively impacted by the pandemic and its associated economic downturn,” Van Hurdle said.
“ … Starkville continues to face a number of pressing, more immediate needs that only stand to worsen if the city ignores them.”
While Beatty continued to advocate for aid for displaced tenants, no other member supported him. Spruill said these tenants can use other resources to help with rent or find new apartments, such as the state’s $200 million in Rental Assistance for Mississippi Program money.
Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins, who represents Ward 6, echoed Spruill, saying ARPA decisions should be conservative, proper and support the best interest of Starkville, which is putting money into parks.
“We cannot be handing money out to businesses and tenants and apartment complexes and people who are displaced,” Perkins said. “This money is not intended for that. There are other (resources) for people who are displaced and people who are running a business.”