Since President Biden signed the American Recovery Rescue Plan (ARPA) into law in March, a program that pumps millions of dollars directly to cities and counties throughout the country, local governments have been pondering how to use those funds most effectively.
The $1.9 trillion program is intended to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate the damage that may come from future disasters. In this respect, the program addresses not only what has happened, but is yet to happen.
The funds must be dedicated to programs that require federal approval and must be spent by the end of 2024. It’s a complicated program, leading many local governments to hold off plans for the money until they have a better idea of what projects will qualify. No government wants to be left holding the bag on a project that may not qualify.,
Lowndes County supervisors are hiring a consultant to help navigate the program requirements, something the city of Columbus is also considering.
On Tuesday, we got our first glimpse of how one local government intends to spend those funds.
During its board meeting, Starkville aldermen approved its ARPA plan, devoting almost all of those funds to recreation.
The board had also already approved spending $2 million of the ARPA funds to build fields at the city’s Cornerstone Park, a $22-million project initially funded through a one-percent increase in the city’s restaurant tax.
On Tuesday, aldermen appropriated more than $3.5 million to Cornerstone and city park improvements. Altogether, that means the city is devoting more than $5.5 million of its $6.4 million ARPA funding on recreation.
Mayor Lynn Spruill justified the recreation allocations — which represent nearly all ARPA funding — by saying it will have the greatest impact on the greatest number of residents.
We question the wisdom of that approach. In fact, it is almost incomprehensible that the city of Starkville has so few real issues (or so few opportunities) that such a high percentage of these funds be dedicated for what is, ultimately, recreation and tourism-related recreation.
We believe such an imbalance does not accurately reflect the true intent of ARPA, which was designed to help those most affected by the pandemic while making improvements that will serve the community in the event of another similar disaster.
There is no doubt that parks and recreation and tourism play an important role in the health of a community. And using ARPA funds for tourism is explicitly allowed in guidelines. But devoting so much of these funds to this one project fails to recognize the legitimate areas of need elsewhere.
The city did appropriate $500,000 to hire two police officers and fund $200,000 of a $350,000 water infrastructure project at Northgate subdivision, but there is no money for anything else.
The infusion of so much money into local governments is broadly considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and should be spent in a way where the impact of those funds is felt for years to come.
While other cities are devoting ARPA money to such things as broadband expansion, affordable housing (something that is a growing problem in Starkville), trust funds and grants to support educational opportunities and major water/sewer infrastructure projects, we question Starkville’s decision to put almost all of its eggs in one basket.
Starkville is a growing city and the stresses on infrastructure and services that accompany growth are not reflected in this plan, one that seems to us short-sighted and narrow in its scope.
As noted, this is an extremely rare opportunity. As such, using these funds for the greatest possible benefit while addressing both immediate and future needs, requires innovation and creativity.
We do not see much of that in the plan Starkville presented Tuesday.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.