STARKVILLE — Even as they awaited a final estimate on the cost to repair the Oktibbeha County Lake dam, county supervisors were relying on state matching ARPA funds to help cover those costs.
On Wednesday, however, supervisors were alerted that the project is not eligible for those matching funds, based on an amendment to the final rule released on May 17. The ruling applies to ARPA funds provided to states for the purpose of grants called the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) to municipalities and countries for eligible projects.
William McKercher, chief of Dam Safety Division for the Mississippi Department of Environment Quality, informed County Attorney Rob Roberson and Board of Supervisors President Bricklee Miller of the ruling via text after the Association of State Dam Safety Officials notified its members of the amended rule.
The relevant passage in the voluminous SLFRF Final rule is found on pages 286-288 in the report, where it states “Treasury’s final rule provides that funds may be used for rehabilitation of dams and reservoirs if the primary purpose of the dam or reservoir is for drinking water supply and the rehabilitation project is necessary for continued provision of drinking water supply.”
In June of 1964, county voters approved a $150,000 bond to create a recreational lake in the county, which included building the dam to retain the lake water. The dam does not provide drinking water.
Miller said she was not surprised to learn the project will not qualify for SLFRF matching funds.
“At the time we voted to do it, I didn’t believe those funds were applicable,” Miller said Wednesday. “Whatever we decide to do, we’re going to have to look at other options, including decommissioning the lake or letting the voters decide on a bond to fund the project. There’s also the options for using our ARPA funds ($9.6 million) for other projects that do qualify for matching funds, which would turn that $9 million into $18 million.”
Roberson, who is on vacation in Florida, said late Wednesday afternoon that he had not reviewed the ruling.
“Just off the top of my head, the question I have is: Does this ruling apply to all ARPA funds or just state matching funds?” Roberson said. “If it’s not eligible for state funds, would that also mean it’s not a project we can spend our ARPA money on? I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, in whose district the dam is located, said Wednesday he believes the county can still use its own ARPA funds for the project.
“There is a provision that if you got less than $10 million you can use that money as general fund money,” Howard said.
That provision states local governments can choose the standard allowance of up to $10 million in revenue loss regardless of their actual loss of revenue.
The idea of raising taxes through a bond issue to fund the project became a point of discussion among supervisors prior to Wednesday.
At its May 2 board meeting, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said requests for other qualifying ARPA projects in the county could result in raising taxes. During that meeting, supervisors considered a request for $1.7 million in ARPA funds to assist the East Oktibbeha Wastewater District’s infrastructure expansion down Old Highway 25. The project would qualify for a dollar-for-dollar match from the state’s ARPA program, said wastewater district manager Dwight Prisock.
Supervisors tabled the request until Monday’s regular board meeting as they await an updated cost estimate for the dam repairs from Pickering Engineering, which previously estimated the cost at $15 million to $17 million, more than twice the original estimate of $8 million provided by County Engineer Clyde Pritchard for improvements after he reported the dam was in danger of breaching in January 2020.
Howard said he’s still committed to repairing the dam, saying there may be other grant funding available.
“We may be able to get grant funding from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service),” Howard said. “In fact, we’ve gotten NRCS grants before. I guess my point is, even if we can’t get the state funds, it’s something we have to find a way to do. In the long-term, repairing the dam is going to be important for the future of the county.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]