OKTIBBEHA COUNTY — The purported sure thing of the county receiving $13 million in federal funds to repair the lake dam has proven, at least for now, to be more of a definite maybe.
Carl Ray Furr, co-owner of Mississippi Engineering Group, told the board of supervisors Monday the Natural Resources Conservation Service had approved the funds to repair the county lake dam. But county officials have seen no written confirmation it will receive the money, and a state NRCS office spokesperson on Friday told The Dispatch via email, “there has been no official announcement concerning this project,” offering no further comment.
“We have been told unofficially the $13 million for the lake is pending,” board attorney Rob Roberson told The Dispatch on Friday. “ I’d prefer to have written confirmation rather than words at a board meeting. … You’ll have a lot of disappointed people if it doesn’t work out.”
MSEG is working under contract with the county to redesign the lake dam, located west of Starkville off Highway 82. Water levels have been drained to the point the lake is unusable since January 2020, when county officials reported the dam was in imminent danger of breaching. MSEG estimated work to repair the levee and upgrade the spillways to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality standards would cost between $15 million and $17 million.
The county applied for an NRCS Watershed Rehabilitation Program grant in February, from which the $13 million in question would come.
Furr told supervisors on Monday he had received confirmation of the county’s award from Kurt Readus, acting deputy chief of science and technology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former state conservationist with the Mississippi NRCS office. It would cover three phases of the project — the completed feasibility study, the design that is underway and construction.
“I have a copy here on my phone that says it’s approved from Washington,” he told the supervisors, later adding that the only way the county wouldn’t receive it is if “the board doesn’t want it.”
Official confirmation would come “pretty soon,” he continued. He also believes the county will receive 100 percent of the grant without having to provide matching funds.
Roberson expects there will be a little more to the process, though he is hopeful Furr is right about the match.
“The way this kind of thing usually works is we’ll get an email (in this case from NRCS) backed by a letter that we have been approved,” Roberson said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Stay tuned. You’ll be given further instructions on how to get the money.’ Then we’ll have to jump through some more hoops to actually get it.”
Roberson also hopes Furr’s premature announcement Monday doesn’t put the county’s application in negative standing with NRCS.
“It can’t help it,” he said. “But I’ve gotten the impression that this (grant approval) is already on its tracks.”
Jeff Ballweber, director of special projects with Pickering Engineering, wrote the application letter for the NRCS grant in February for the county to file. While Pickering contracted with the county in April to find grant money for other projects, the firm is not contracted with the county on any project related to the lake. However, Ballweber told The Dispatch he wrote the application letter “pro-bono … as a customer service.”
Furr serves as a senior vice president at Pickering in addition to co-owning MSEG.
“I believe a formal notification is coming soon,” Ballweber told The Dispatch on Friday. “What ‘soon’ is, I don’t know.”
Speaking with The Dispatch on Saturday, Furr stood by the information he gave the board.
“I hadn’t gotten my cart before my horse,” said Furr, 85, who noted he had been working professionally with engineering firms securing funding for projects since the mid-1960s. “I don’t go out on a limb.”
To rebuild or decommission?
If the county receives the funds, District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, whose district includes the lake area, noted it could pay for 80 to 85 percent of the lake rehab.
The money could go further with some help from MDEQ, Furr said.
MDEQ classifies the county lake as a “high hazard” dam, meaning it has to accommodate a maximum possible precipitation of 42 inches in 24 hours. If his firm could get MDEQ to agree to, say, “30 to 35 inches,” the project’s $17 million price tag could also decrease.
“That’s going to come down,” he said. “We’ve been negotiating it with MDEQ.”
Not every supervisor is on board with the project or even the NRCS grant.
Bricklee Miller, board president who represents District 4, said she refused to sign the grant application because she believed it included “falsehoods” — among them that the lake aids flood control in the area and that heavy rains caused the breach warning in 2020. She told The Dispatch she does not believe the lake qualifies for the NRCS grant and deferred to board vice president Orlando Trainer, who represents District 2, to sign the application.
Trainer, speaking with The Dispatch, said he had no issue pushing forward with the grant or the project.
“I think that’s just her personal perspective,” Trainer said of Miller. “If we weren’t eligible for the grant, we wouldn’t receive it.”
Miller has pushed for decommissioning the lake rather than fixing it, an option she believes would cost the taxpayers less. She also moved unsuccessfully on Monday to put the dam issue on the Nov. 8 ballot for a countywide vote.
“If the people vote to put it back to full pool, then we should do that,” she said. “But if they vote to decommission the lake, then we should go that route.”
The county has requested qualifications from firms to present decommissioning options, but Howard said the NRCS news changes that conversation.
Initially, the county hoped to obtain a state match for its $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to repair the lake. MDEQ ruled the lake was ineligible for state match since it wasn’t a drinking water lake, but ARPA guidelines will allow the county to spend up to $10 million of the COVID-19 relief program funds for general purposes. Howard said that includes the lake and means the project can be entirely funded with federal funds if the NRCS grant comes through.
That makes decommissioning the lake or putting the issue on the ballot unnecessary, Howard said.
“Putting it on the ballot would be a no-brainer if we were in the beginning stages and the only option was to burden the taxpayers,” he said. “I think we have the money in front of us to get the job done.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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