After a joint meeting Monday morning, the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and the Columbus City Council still do not have any kind of formal agreement for combining their COVID-19 relief money, but the council got a definitive “no” on watershed issues and a “definitely maybe” on blight remediation.
Columbus Director of Planning and Urban Development George Irby pitched a plan to the council that would see part of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act relief money used to buy blighted properties, demolish the buildings on them and then market them to developers for newer, better housing. The council voted to ask the supervisors to participate, with the intention of matching whatever the county contributed, up to $1 million. Last week the supervisors were receptive to that idea, but District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks wanted the two boards to meet face-to-face to discuss their ARPA plans.
The two boards met Monday morning and, while President Trip Hairston, District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith and Brooks again said they wanted the county to help the city with blight removal, no concrete steps were taken. The supervisors did definitively say they were not interested in helping with watershed issues, however.
The council had asked the county for $3 million in matching funds for watershed issues after a study from Waggoner Engineering found that many of the city’s drainage issues originate outside the city itself. The intention was to take that combined $6 million and hopefully get an additional $6 million in matching funds from the state.
“We have received requests for ARPA money from rural water associations that come to $14.9 million,” Hairston said. “We’ve also talked to (East Mississippi Community College President Scott Alsobrooks) about their lagoon — they want to try to get that on the industrial park’s water system — but I think that’s probably a state-funded item.”
Brooks agreed on the watershed point.
“We’ve got people living in the county with major sewer problems,” he said. “If it comes down to taking care of that versus watershed, I’ve got to be for those people living on gravel roads who don’t have a viable sewer system.”
The county is slated to receive $11.4 million in ARPA, while the city will get $5.6 million. An ambitious plan put together by Waggoner had as much as $4 million of the city’s seed money being used to get state and federal matching funds. The process would, firm leaders said, over several years generate more than $100 million for watershed remediation and a variety of urban renewal programs, including public transportation, child care and improvements to sidewalks near schools.
Attempts to leverage the city and county’s investment into $100 million-plus is “a bridge too far,” Hairston said.
Brooks, Hairston and Smith also said blight was a concern for them, but Hairston wants to see more details.
“(Remediating) blighted areas in the city helps all of us, especially with crime,” Hairston said. “But how does that funding mechanism work?… What are the assurances that money will actually be used in that particular area? Are there going to be clawbacks if blighted areas aren’t bought in a certain time?”
Brooks said he thinks blighted property hurts the city’s potential for growth.
“If there’s going to be growth, you’re going to have to get more retail and you’re going to have to improve your housing stock,” he said. “Most of the people in the core of the city are renters. If a person will pay $500 for rent, maybe a program can be put together where they pay $500 for a house.”
Irby said he would put a plan together for the council to review.
“Your questions are valid, but we weren’t going to put together a plan until we knew it was a doable project,” Irby said. “The way I think it could be expedited is to say that you want a program, and bring back something with some teeth in it. The reason you don’t have it is we didn’t know if it was going to happen.”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said the city is going to push on with blight remediation with or without the county.
“If we don’t get a dime from the county, we’re going to do what we got to do,” Mickens said. Smith said he feels the supervisors have a responsibility to help the city with its blight issues, because all of them were stakeholders in the community.
“This can’t be a territorial thing,” Smith said. “This has to be a responsibility led by the leaders in this room. All the ‘I’ and ‘you’ needs to be left at the door.”
Irby said he would pull together a detailed plan and present it to the supervisors for their review.
Brooks said he thought it was a “really good meeting.”
“The mayor says he has no problem asking, and we have no problem saying no,” Brooks said. “… I’ve been at meetings that stopped short of chairs being thrown. This was an excellent meeting.”
The supervisors will hold a workshop to talk about their ARPA priorities following today’s regular meeting at 9 a.m.