At last week’s city council meeting two engineering firms pitched their services to serve as consultants for spending the $5.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money the city will receive.
ARPA funds may be used for public health response to the pandemic, offsetting negative economic impacts, public housing assistance, public sector revenue loss, premium pay for essential workers and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. Funds must be committed by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
Neel-Schaffer engineering, already the city’s contracted engineering firm, highlighted its partnership with the Butler Snow law firm and Vision First Advisors. Jackson-based Waggoner Engineering also presented, focusing on the need to both leverage other state and federal funding sources and the opportunity to work on drainage and poverty-related issues in the city.
“While we can do it all in-house, we feel like we need true checks and balances,” Stafford said. “We need the legal representation, as well as the accounting representation, on top of the engineering ability.”
Kathy Gelston of Vision First, formerly the chief financial officer for the Mississippi Development Authority, described the firm as a “full service economic development consulting company” with a presence in about 40 states. Former MDA Director Gray Swoope is CEO, and former Golden Triangle Development LINK Vice-President of Economic Development Brenda Latham is now a Vision First consultant, she said.
Gelston said she and Latham will work with the city if they are chosen.
“You will decide how much we do and how much you want us to coach your team to do,” she said. “You can control your costs that way.”
Butler Snow will make sure that all expenditures are legal and fall within the guidelines of the legislation, Gelston said.
The first priority would be putting together a strategic plan, Stafford said, as well as looking for both public and private grant opportunities.
“There’s a lot of partnership opportunities,” he said. “You can work with Columbus Light and Water, I know you’ve already talked to the county, and there are nonprofit opportunities, as well. There are also state and federal partners. We’ve talked to (Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann) and showed him different things in our community that need funding. He’s come out and said he will help with 50/50 match for water, sewer and broadband. We want to have our clients first in line to receive that.”
Stafford said that Neel-Schaffer already had a multi-million-dollar list of improvements developed at CLW, which included everything from lift station rehab and upgrading manhole liners and upsizing water mains.
“One other example I’ll give you is that the city annexed in 2015,” he said. “By law you are supposed to extend water and sewer into that area and it hasn’t been done yet.”
Waggoner Engineering President and Board Chairman Emad Al-Turk told the council that it needed to think big.
In addition to ARPA funds, the city needs to look at the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the proposed Build Back Better Act, should it pass, he said. Al-Turk also suggested the city look hard at trying for legislative line-item appropriations and even philanthropic sources.
“You need to figure out what full recovery looks like for your community,” he said. “What is it you would like to see in the next five or 10 years? You need to come up with a plan and figure out all of your needs. Many of the planning documents that you have don’t quantify the cost of the improvements. They give a list of items, but there is no strategy to develop the funding that is needed to make those projects a reality. We will help make sure you can implement your plans so they do not gather dust on a shelf.”
Columbus is facing challenges, he said. From 1990 to 2020 the city’s population declined by 16 percent. The average per capita income for white residents is $40,444, but is only $17,466 for African Americans. The median household income is $36,338, and the poverty rate is 28.1 percent.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and the city of Columbus needs to take full advantage of it,” he said. “If you have ingenuity, and you have plans, if you know exactly what you want and you develop a plan that actually explains it, you have a very high probability of securing significant funding to address Columbus’ needs for the future. It’s not just about ARPA, there are many, many other programs. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Al-Turk also zeroed in on flooding and drainage problems.
“Drainage is a huge problem, and it has been for years,” he said. “We have deep experience in this area. When many communities think about drainage, they focus on localized problems. If you have a culvert that needs to be expanded, you expand it. But water does not know boundaries, and it could be coming from outside. The watershed you are in goes all the way to Alabama. It may be caused by things that you can’t control. That’s why you need to look outside your political boundaries.”
The council will weigh both presentations and make a decision in December. Mayor Keith Gaskin also said he wants the city to seek community input before making any decision, and he wants the city and county to work closely together.
“(Hosemann) told us at the Mississippi Municipal League meeting that we needed to become best friends with boards of supervisors,” he said. “They are getting a larger pot of money. They are getting their money directly from the federal government, instead of through the state, so they have fewer stipulations. Any time you have this amount of money, it’s in the best interest of the citizens for the city and county to work together.”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said that he is especially interested in drainage projects.
“I know we can’t tackle all of it,” he said. “But I would like to see us use as much as we can (for drainage). If we can relieve this problem I think it will be a plus for the administration and for Mayor Gaskin.”
Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene also singled out drainage.
“(Hosemann) said he wanted it to be generational, something that people 10 or 20 years down the road can tell we did,” he said. “I want to see some spent on drainage. I hope we can come together and find a way to compromise.”
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco would not comment, instead deferring to a council work session where she hopes the issue will be discussed further.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart, Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard and Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones did not return phone calls seeking comment.