Columbus City Council made its first concrete decisions on spending its American Rescue Plan Act funding Tuesday night. It first offered to match up to $1 million in funding from the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors for remediating dilapidated property, and then voted to designate as much as $3 million for drainage projects.
Neither vote was unanimous.
The money is not formally obligated to those projects, but meant as a starting point for negotiations with the supervisors.
The city will receive $5.6 million in ARPA funding — a federal coronavirus relief program. The money must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
Interim City Planning and Community Development Director George Irby asked the council to dedicate $1 million of its ARPA funds toward remediation of dilapidated housing in the city.
Irby said that the final rule put out by the Treasury Department allowed ARPA funds to be spent on remediating blight and insufficient housing. This is a great need in Columbus, he said, with 240 houses already identified as being blighted.
“You have an opportunity to change a lot of dynamics in this community,” he said.
He asked the council to set aside funds that would be used to buy up blighted properties, with the intention of later selling them to developers who would turn them into affordable housing.
Irby said the money from the city can be used to try to get a match out of the county.
One of Waggoner Engineering’s proposals was to try to get $500,000 in matching funds from the county, Irby said, but there is no guarantee that will materialize. He urged the council to go ahead with or without the county’s participation.
“If you appropriate $1 million, and we can get another match, then that’s a plus,” he said. “If not, we’ve still got a program that will clean this city up.”
Irby said he would pattern the city’s program after an existing one operated by the Treasury Department.
“We get the lots appraised, they are appraised on the value of the lot and not the value of the structure that’s on it,” Irby said. “The demolition makes it more affordable or acceptable to a developer because they don’t have to tear it down. We can’t do that now because we don’t have the money.”
The money from ARPA would allow the city to use private contractors to clear the lots, alleviating the workload on the public works department, which is behind on tearing down condemned properties as it is.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones said he wanted to give the county the opportunity to join the city in funding the program. He proposed telling the board of supervisors the county would match whatever they chose to put in the program, up to $1 million.
When Irby continued to push for getting a guarantee of $1 million outright, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens pushed back.
“You’re singing to the choir,” Mickens said. “We know we have this property we need to clean up, we can help the crime and make it look better. We understand all of that. What (Jones) is saying is we’ll put that on the table, and that’s as far as we’re going to go with it until we have something else. You can talk all evening, but he told you what we’re going to do.”
Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene moved to table the request for later consideration, but Jones made a substitute motion, seconded by Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard, to match whatever the county was willing to put in, up to $1 million. The vote deadlocked, with Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Steward, Beard and Jones voting yes and Mickens, Greene and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco voting no.
Mayor Keith Gaskin cast the deciding “yes” vote.
The council then voted to set aside as much as $3 million from ARPA for stormwater projects and ask the county for matching funds.
Waggoner Engineering floated several plans for ARPA spending priorities at a work session last week. At that meeting several council members pushed back on Waggoner’s ambitious plans, which total over $100 million. Those doubts were back Tuesday night when Waggoner Project Manager Stephen Thompson asked the council to make a decision on how to allot its money.
Thompson recommended the council go with an option, presented last week, that included $4 million from the city. It included $4 million in matching funds from Lowndes County’s ARPA money and a projected $8 million match from the state.
Beard questioned the realism of that plan.
“Every time we talk to someone (from Waggoner) they always give us a figure of $2 million to $4 million (from Lowndes County),” Beard said. “The county has stated over and over that they won’t give us that amount of money. At this moment in time we’ve spent $55,000 (paying Waggoner for its services) and haven’t really gotten anything from it.”
He said he thinks Waggoner’s projected spending, which in one plan is as much as $127 million, is “impossible.”
Thompson said it was impossible to get an answer on matching funds from Lowndes County until a formal request was made.
“Whatever number you want to ask, that’s what we’re going to ask the county for,” Thompson said. “If you say $2 million, we’ll ask the county for that and the state for $4 million. We need to have a formal request from the city to go to the county, and you’ve not done that yet.”
“Just say we’re willing to spend $3 million for sewer, and then go to the county and see what they’re willing to put in,” Jones said. “… That doesn’t mean we’re going to use it, the county could say they’re not going to give us anything. Then we might want to see what we can get from the state. If we can’t get from the state, we can change our minds and do something else.”
Beard moved to set aside $3 million to see what the county would match and was seconded by Stewart. The motion passed 4-2, with Greene and DiCicco voting no.
Thompson said he would give Gaskin a letter to sign with that offer and then send it to the county.