Mayor Toby Barker and Hattiesburg City Council members continue to work out the best ways to utilize the $12.8 million received by the City of Hattiesburg courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act – a $1.9 trillion stimulus package issued by the federal government to offset revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – including asking for public opinion on that matter.
The issue was discussed in detail at the council’s Aug. 1 work session by Barker and city engineer Lamar Rutland, when the mayor said since ARPA’s passage in 2021, the state government has expanded the list of items for which the funds can be used. In particular, Senate Bill 2822 – which established the Mississippi Municipality and County Water Infrastructure Grant Program Act of 2022 – was passed during this year’s session of the Mississippi Legislature to provides an incentive to steer the city’s ARPA allocation to long-term strategic investments by offering a 1:1 match on water, sewer and stormwater projects.
“So for Hattiesburg, when you consider we have $12.1 million, this means we can turn that into $25.6 million, if all the funds were used for water, sewer and stormwater projects and leveraged against the state’s matching program,” Barker said. “However, like every other city, we have many needs – we are under a consent decree for sanitary sewer overflows, and ARPA represents an avenue to move further along on sewer line replacement and rehabilitation.
“We have stormwater needs, as we saw (Monday), as Hattiesburg continues to see more flash flooding events. We have made a lot of real progress in replacing those undersized and aging water lines. So while I do anticipate that we have a universal agreement that most of our allocation should be leveraged against the state to invest in water, sewer and drainage, I know there are other needs the council and our residents would like to try and address.”
Solutions to those additional needs include possibly investing in the city’s human capital and quality of life by strengthening its partnership with Pearl River Community College, in order to give residents more workforce training opportunities. Other measures including providing free Wi-Fi in city parks, investing in the downtown area, updating the city’s fleet of public safety and sanitation vehicles, or investing in employees.
“We must consider the tangible impact, whether a project has a large direct benefit to residents and businesses,” Barker said. “(We have to think about) the long-term impact, that will have positive impacts beyond 10 years or more.
“(There’s also) the community needs in disadvantaged communities, efficiency where impact is greater than resource expenditure, and the potential for transforming the change where we achieve something that would not have happened without these ARPA funds.”
To that end, city officials have launched on online survey regarding the funding to provide residents with an outlet for feedback on how those monies will be spent. The survey can be accessed by visiting https://bit.ly/hburgarpa_survey or by calling the mayor’s office at (601) 545-4501.
“Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act presents a real opportunity for cities like Hattiesburg to make game-changing investments in infrastructure, human capital, public safety and quality of life,” Barker said. "That’s why it is so important to be strategic with ARPA funding decisions - and most importantly, to give the public a voice in how monies are spent.”
Barker acknowledged that Hattiesburg’s available funds may not be enough to complete all the projects on everyone’s wish list, including those of council members and residents. However, the feedback provided will nonetheless give officials insight into what is important in the various neighborhoods and wards throughout the city.
“Then other funding can be secured to make these ideas happen that get submitted on this website,” Barker said. “If we’ve been successful at anything over the past five years (since the current administration took over), it’s been securing state and federal resources, and creating partnerships with counties, commissions, universities, school districts, to accomplish shared goals.”
Mississippi is earmarked for $1.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan, part of $195 billion in federal funds that is distributed throughout all 50 states in the nation.