The Columbus council approved $55,700 for Waggoner Engineering to perform a community needs assessment during a Dec. 28 special-call meeting at City Hall.
The assessment is the first step toward requesting matching funds from the Legislature for the city’s American Recovery Plan Act projects.
The council hired Waggoner last week as its consultant for spending $5.6 million it will receive in federal ARPA money meant to help local governments recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said that, going forward, Waggoner will submit “task orders” to the city outlining work they think needs to be done, and the council can vote on each individually.
The first task order was a community assessment, with a cost of $55,700 to be paid out of the ARPA funds themselves.
Waggoner Engineering President and Board Chairman Emad Al-Turk explained that, due to the legislative session beginning next week, the normally 60-day assessment will be crunched to 45 days.
“We need to start working on a request (for the state) to match the city’s ARPA funds,” he said. “The first step is to develop a very quick needs assessment to see what areas are eligible and see what, from a policy perspective, you want to spend funds on. Then we need to develop a funding strategy on how we can match those needs with county and state resources.”
Next week a team of engineers from Waggoner will meet with city department heads and the planning department to get an idea of priorities, Al-Turk said.
They will tour the city and then the following week will meet one-on-one with the council members about the needs in their specific wards.
“Once we figure out your constituents’ needs, we will figure out what is eligible under the ARPA requirements,” he said.
A project list will be developed, along with a proposed budget, he said.
“Some will include drainage, some will include community facilities,” he said. “I’m sure the budget will far exceed the $5 million you have from ARPA, so the challenge is going to be how we can maximize this.”
Al-Turk said he hoped to have a list of projects the city could take to Jackson by late January or early February. He said he expects the Legislature will likely finalize its appropriations by the end of March.
Drainage, other needs
Mayor Keith Gaskin asked about watershed and drainage work, and Al-Turk said that would be a matter best approached in tandem with the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
“Some of the problems you have (with drainage) are because of lack of maintenance, and some are because of lack of funding,” he said. “Your infrastructure is deteriorating due to age. Some of it is because of things beyond your control and is coming from outside of your area. Water does not know political boundaries, so this would be an ideal” joint project with the county.
Al-Turk said Waggoner intended to meet with the supervisors to “try to convince them that this is a good investment for the city, the county and the citizens.”
The watershed plan had a price tag of $520,000 and would take about five months, according to documentation Al-Turk provided. It could be fully funded with ARPA money.
He also provided a list of suggested next steps, each with its associated price tag: Updating the comprehensive plan, nine months and $125,000, 60-80 percent fundable with ARPA money; a $95,000 efficiency and effectiveness study, which would take three to four months and could be funded 40-60 percent via ARPA; preparation of state and federal grant applications at a cost of $125,000 per year; ARPA compliance reporting, which would be ongoing until Dec. 31, 2026, and would cost 5 percent of the total ARPA funding received; and a $195,000 transportation plan, which would take a year and currently cannot be funded via ARPA, which does not currently allow transportation spending. Al-Turk said a bill passed by the U.S. Senate and currently in the House may change that.
“Every time they come back with one of these steps, we would have to approve it,” Gaskin said. “That’s when we would discuss where the funding is coming from for that. We’re going to be looking to see where we can get the biggest bang for our buck as we move down the priority list for the city.”
“We are squeezing all of this in a very short period of time because other communities have been planning for six, seven, eight months,” Al-Turk said.
“Unfortunately we are beginning our work as the legislative session is beginning. It will put a lot of pressure on us, but we will do everything in our power.”
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