Columbus City Council tabled a request Tuesday for about $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding by Columbus Light and Water for wastewater repairs after confusion about how much money was left in the pot.
In May, CLW General Manager Angela Verdell made a pitch at a council work session for about $1 million from the city’s more than $5 million ARPA allotment. The work would cover about half the cost of the projects, which range from upgrading lift stations to upgrading sewer lines. The projects touch every ward and affect many low- to moderate-income residents.
The other half of the money would hopefully come from dollar-for-dollar matching funds from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Verdell said at the time.
When the matter came before the council Tuesday, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones moved, with a second by Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart, to give CLW the money. However, Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard insisted there wasn’t enough undedicated ARPA money left to honor the request, while Chief Financial Officer James Brigham and Mayor Keith Gaskin said there was.
“All the money has been allocated,” Beard said. “We allocated $3 million for Waggoner Engineering and $1.3 million for incentive pay. We only used $750,000, so there’s still $550,000 sitting there. Then we did $500,000 for blight. We don’t have $1 million from what we allocated.”
Wednesday morning, Brigham explained the city’s ARPA allocations to date. The city got a total of about $5.8 million, of which about $55,700 has been spent on a needs assessment performed by Waggoner Engineering.
The city earmarked $3 million for watershed issues, he said. About $1.3 million was set aside for incentive pay, but only about $750,000 will actually be used. Finally, $500,000 was earmarked for a blight remediation program.
“That leaves us with a little over $1 million if we only use $750,000 (for incentive pay),” he said.
But simple math wasn’t the only resistance to funding the CLW request.
Tuesday, Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene wanted to know if CLW could fund the project otherwise.
“Is this not a project they should be funding themselves?” Greene asked. “If we didn’t get ARPA, would they just not fix these pump stations? In my mind that’s what they do. They figure out how to fund this with their fees, but now they’re coming to us for $1 million.”
Jones said the city is no different.
“I guess the answer is they are just like us,” Jones said. “If we had not gotten the ARPA money, how would we be doing some of the things that we’re doing? Things would still need to be fixed, and we would just be throwing rocks in the sand trying to get it done.”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said he had too many questions.
“We need to see where the money’s coming from,” he said. “And I don’t see anyone from (CLW) here to talk about this.”
“Did we not have a work session where (CLW) was there and did a thorough discussion on this $1 million?” Stewart asked Mickens.
The waters became more muddied when Brigham asked that language be added to Jones’ motion stating that the money would only be obligated when the city received its second allotment of ARPA. The funding is doled out in two payments, and the city has only received the first half of its money so far. The other half, Brigham said, is expected soon.
“Things are getting out of hand,” Mickens said. “If (Brigham) is saying the money isn’t there, why are we going forward?”
Mickens made a substitute motion to table the request, with a second by Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco. The motion deadlocked, with Mickens, Greene and DiCicco voting yes and Stewart, Beard and Jones voting no. Gaskin broke the tie with a vote to table.
“The council is very interested in partnering with CLW on the needs they came to us with,” Gaskin said during a press conference Wednesday morning. “… When we have flooding it causes a lot of waste backing up into people’s homes, and this is a real problem. I want to make it clear how important it is that we invest in these types of projects.”
Gaskin said that he did not vote to table because he opposes the expenditure.
“It was becoming obvious that we weren’t exactly clear to the penny what we had designated,” he said. “I felt like it was important to clarify that.”
Hughes named fire chief
The council unanimously confirmed Duane Hughes as Columbus Fire and Rescue chief. Hughes has been with CFR for 27 years, including about six years as assistant chief under Martin Andrews, who retired on April 18. He had served as interim chief since Andrews’ departure.
“It’s definitely an honor and a challenge,” Hughes said. “I’ll take both.”
Hughes said he was ready for CFR to “re-acquaint itself with the community” after COVID-19 put a stop to many of its education events. He also told The Dispatch that he wanted to work on recruitment and retention within the department.
“I think the council showed last night how much we respect the chief and his tenure,” Gaskin said Wednesday. “(Andrews) recommended him as well as someone who would be the best for that role. We’re thrilled he’s in that role and we have taken the ‘interim’ from his title.”
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.