STARKVILLE — The city’s decision to dedicate $5.5 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to parks and recreation did not sit well with many citizens.
Homelessness and evictions, for example, are increasing in the city, said Cate Van Hurdle, a representative with the Starkville Strong community action group. Spending so much aid on “beautification,” she said, does nothing to address what she sees as more pressing issues.
“Because there is no money going to help these people, the city may be forcing people to possibly live in the parks or sleep in those parks,” Van Hurdle said. “We started the pandemic with people in need. Now, there are more than ever.”
Aldermen voted Sept. 21 on a plan to allocate its $6.2 million in APRA relief, meant to provide relief for local governments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It has received half the funds already with the other half coming next year.
The plan dedicates $3.5 million for upgrades at existing city parks, along with $2 million to help finish construction at the Cornerstone Park baseball/softball complex under construction. The rest will fund hiring two additional police officers ($500,000) and improving water infrastructure in Northgate subdivision ($200,000).
“The money is not going to the 3-year-old child sleeping in a car or on the street,” Van Hurdle said. “Parks are great, but parks are not the most disadvantaged or most damaged piece in all of this. It’s actually people losing their homes, people who can’t find jobs or put food on the table. That’s what this money is for.”
Categories ARPA funds can be spent on 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.
Several community members are disappointed the board did not ask for any public opinion on the use of the ARPA funds, Van Hurdle said. She said little transparency was given to the public either as there was no breakdown or explanation on what spending for the parks would like.
Mayor Lynn Spruill developed the city’s ARPA plan with the help of City Attorney Chris Latimer, focusing heavily on the tourism aspect. She said she has spoken with several members of the business community who support the city’s plan.
“This is one time major money that is going to affect our city,” Spruill said. “I still stand by my beliefs that spending it on parks is the broadest and best way to reach the largest percentage of citizens. We will never get this money again. We wouldn’t be able to do these things for 20 years like we can with this money.”
While Spruill acknowledged growing homelessness and other infrastructure needs, she noted there are other funding avenues to address those problems.
Spruill mentioned Tuesday that displaced residents could apply for other federal funding, such as the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program. While this money is intended to assist residents who have lost their homes during the pandemic, Van Hurdle said most of the homeless population does not meet the requirements to qualify for the funding.
In order to qualify, residents must demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability, provide proof of economic reduction and present documentation of a current lease.
Eligible households also must include an individual who has been unemployed for at least 90 days prior to application, experienced a reduction in household income or endured economic hardship throughout the pandemic.
“Out of all of the actively homeless cases that Starkville Strong has dealt with, as of August, almost two-thirds of those people who are homeless, which we define as not having a consistent place to live, such as people who are sleeping on a friend’s couch, they’re not considered homeless and don’t qualify for the RAMP funds,” Van Hurdle said.
Cornerstone Park, located on Highway 25, will be a baseball and softball-focused recreation facility with an emphasis on hosting tournaments. The bond for 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.
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, allowing more tournament games to be played at the facility.
The 1-percent sales tax is also meant to fund maintenance and improvement of city parks. Spruill said the amount of money from the tax dedicated to existing parks changes every year. The $3.5 million in ARPA funds will be in addition to this tax money and 40 percent of the other 2-percent tourism tax the city collects that goes to parks each year.
“Forty-percent goes to the parks from the 2-percent (sales tax) that is already in existence, but we also put money into the parks from the general fund,” Spruill said.
A call for ‘inclusive’ decisions
The only alderman who expressed opposition to park funding last Tuesday was Ward 5’s Hamp Beatty. Several residents in his ward, particularly in the Northgate subdivision, expressed concern to him about water issues in their homes, and in turn, he convinced the board to allocate $200,000 to fixing infrastructure issues in Northgate.
While Beatty said he is glad those residents are receiving some funding, he thinks there are other uses for the rest of the funds that fall more closely in line with what Congress intended, such as homelessness. He said he wishes Starkville would strategically look at all the ways the money could benefit the city.
“I think we jumped the gun on this,” Beatty said. “Any time there’s a hurricane, a pandemic, any time people get hurt in a society, those are the people most vulnerable and those are the ones that get the most hurt. I just think those are the people that need this money.”
Beatty said he can move to rescind the plan at the board’s next meeting but does not know if that is the route he wants to take yet.
Oktibbeha County NAACP President Yulanda Haddix echoed Van Hurdle and Beatty’s disappointment, as she has vigorously been helping displaced tenants from the apartments on Catherine Street find new places to live — several have already been evicted from their homes and have nowhere else to go. She said there are barely any places to rent in Starkville, and because Spruill is a landlord — she owns Spruill Properties that includes several apartment units in the city — she wishes the mayor better understood the struggles of these community members.
“The underserved community will always be underserved,” Haddix said. “We expect our leaders to make good decisions that are inclusive to the entire population and create avenues to ensure everyone is valued, but that isn’t always the case. I just wish they would put the funds somewhere else instead of improving the climate of the community.”