Officials from the city of Columbus and Lowndes County took one small step forward on planning for American Rescue Plan Act spending, meeting Wednesday morning to try to find some common ground.
Mayor Keith Gaskin, Councilmen Joseph Mickens, Rusty Greene, Pierre Beard and Stephen Jones, and City Engineer Kevin Stafford met at City Hall with all five supervisors and County Administrator Jay Fisher, as well as District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger, District 42 Rep. Carl Mickens and Congressman Trent Kelly’s field representative Missy Younger.
The state has received about $1.2 billion in ARPA funds. Lowndes County will get a total of about $11 million, and Columbus will receive about $5.6 million. More funds could come from a federal infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, should it pass. Gaskin called Wednesday’s meeting to try to identify some areas where the city and county could come together to maximize the funding’s impact, including using other state money to match.
“Counties are getting more money than cities, and it is coming straight from the federal government and not through the state government, as we are,” Gaskin said. “We have some serious issues with drainage, and some poverty rate issues, as well. It’s not clear-cut how we can leverage money into those areas.”
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks said local governments need to work quickly to get a wish list together to send to the Legislature, before its session begins in January.
“The session is starting soon, and it’s going to be a fistfight down there,” Brooks said. “You’ve got more money than we’ve probably ever had, you’ve got redistricting, you’ve got medical marijuana. There’s a host of issues down there, and it behooves the county and city to have a plan. In my mind, there is a sense of urgency.”
Brooks noted the supervisors’ desire to work with rural water systems, as well as the needs of small towns. District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders expanded on that theme, using Caledonia as an example.
The town hasn’t expanded its town limits in decades, and its population is small. But the water system has many customers who are outside the town limits.
“Here they are needing money to expand that water and sewer system, but they don’t have any tax base,” Sanders said. “They’re not getting any money from the government because of their population. They got $300,000, and their needs are $1.5 million to $2 million, just to service the people in their system. Should we use state money for that? Should the town ask for money, or should they come to us because many of the people who use that system live in the county?”
Brooks was skeptical of the city and county combining needs in one request.
“I would not be interested in submitting a city/county proposal,” Brooks said. “The municipal league is lobbying for you all, and the supervisors’ association is lobbying for us. We may have some similarities, but you don’t want to lose the differences within the similarities.”
He also said he thought small towns would have a better chance on their own than working with the city and county.
“I think each entity needs to put their own package together and submit it,” Brooks said.
Because Columbus’ ARPA money is coming through the state, that adds rules for cities that do not bind counties, he said.
Younger said he thought it would be best for the two entities to work separately.
“You need to separate the entities so you can get as much money as you can get,” Younger said.
Dividing efforts to get funding does not mean the city and county are unwilling to work together.
“We’re united in concept, but the city may be in better shape to get more money on its own versus with the county,” Brooks said. “If you lump all that stuff together, you might minimize the amount of money. We can figure out how to work together, but we’re talking about submitting proposals. We need a plan we can put in somebody’s hands.”
“Whatever happens, it has to come from you all,” said Carl Mickens. “We’re going to carry that (to Jackson) and try to get what we can. If you don’t come together and give us something, we’re just going to give you something.”
No decisions were made, but Gaskin said at the end of the meeting that he thought it was “a great first step.”
“I hope we can continue to communicate,” he said.