OKTIBBEHA COUNTY — Supervisors approved a contract Monday with an engineering group to assist the county in procuring federal funds.
Oktibbeha County has contracted with Flowood-based Pickering Engineering Firm, a full-service engineering and architectural firm, to conduct studies on improvements for the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam, but has also worked with the group for the last two years to attempt to pursue federal funding for other county projects.
While Pickering is not a lobbying firm, the group works with local entities to provide clients with advice on new project specifications, along with assisting in acquiring federal and grant dollars. The board approved a $45,000 contract at its regular meeting Monday for Pickering to help with particular strategic initiatives and projects.
After intense discussion of which projects to partner with Pickering on, the board unanimously approved moving forward with trying to procure funds for improvements to the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam through a National Resources Conservation Service grant. By a series of 3-2 votes — with District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery and District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller opposing — the board also authorized seeking funds for building a rural development community center, drinking water and wastewater improvements and an Eastern Federal Access Program for rehabilitation on Bluff Lake Road.
Pickering Firm Principal Owner Curt Craig, who attended a trip to Washington, D.C., with District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard on March 15-17 to lobby for particular projects, said his firm wants to help the supervisors pursue whichever endeavors they prefer.
“We would serve at your will and pleasure and pursue projects that the county wants to pursue,” Craig said.
The board commissioned Pickering in July 2021 to create a design process for improving the county lake dam. The county has paid Pickering more than $170,000 for preliminary assessments and environmental studies of the lake.
Supes delay seeking grant for South Loop connector
One main project the county voted against partnering with Pickering on was the South Loop connector project containing improvements to Hail State Boulevard and Poor House Road. After the county, working with Pickering, applied unsuccessfully for a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development Grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation in the past two years, Craig said Pickering now wants to pursue a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grant, also through USDOT.
Miller addressed the fact that applying for these grants costs the county nearly $100,000 each time, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation is currently in the process of conducting a traffic study of Poor House Road to see what the best solutions for improvements would be. She said she would prefer to not move forward with this project until the results have come back.
“I think we need to wait to apply for the RAISE Grant for the third year on that,” Miller said. “… MDOT is in the final stages of doing a traffic study, and they have not released that study yet. There is a master plan being developed for where the routing will be.”
Trainer rebutted Miller’s statements, saying he believes the county is in a favorable position to finally procure funds for the South Loop project and if the county does not even apply, it definitely will not get any dollars.
“Supervisor Miller, every time we wait with you, it costs us money,” Trainer said.
Moving forward with this project failed 3-2 with only Trainer and Howard in favor.
‘There’s more out there than paving roads’
The board instead approved applying for a RAISE Grant for a countywide transportation model that will eliminate all gravel roads throughout the county.
Only Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams voted in favor of this, with Montgomery, Howard and Miller abstaining, ultimately allowing the motion to pass.
According to Board Attorney Rob Roberson, this vote legally stands due to an Attorney General opinion saying as long as there are no opposing votes on a particular motion, the motion is upheld even though a majority of eligible voting members did not vote yes.
Howard said he did not support putting effort into applying for a RAISE Grant for a countywide road improvement plan when the board did not even want to try to apply for a grant funding the South Loop project because trying to obtain these grants can take several years, and he does not want to waste time or money.
“At some point, if you’re going to obligate taxpayer dollars to a project, I think you should see it through,” Howard said. “When we go for a grant I want to see it through, but if we’re not comfortable pursuing a South Loop RAISE Grant but are now talking about pursuing a countywide RAISE Grant, I’m just a little concerned about this board getting part way in and deciding not to do it anymore.”
Williams said he does not believe the county focuses enough on projects other than road improvements. He pointed out that some of the water lines throughout the county have not been updated for decades with several residents having inadequate drinking water and wastewater, a project the board decided to work with Pickering on.
“We just keep talking about paving roads,” Williams said. “There’s more out there than paving roads, y’all. There are more things that people want to see us do, and there are more things we need to be doing.”
The board also mentioned Monday it recently received $2.5 million for repaving Artesia Road through MDOT funds with the assistance of U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.