About one month ago, Hattiesburg City Council members met to discuss how to best use the $12.87 million received by the city from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill issued by the federal government to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That discussion was revisited during the June 7 council meeting, when Mayor Toby Barker gave an update on advice received from the Department of Treasury, which has stated that the funding allocations will remain available through Dec. 31, 2024. The mayor specifically addressed infrastructure elements and limitations of the funds, which directed $65.1 billion in direct federal aid to municipalities around the country.
“We still don’t have clear guidance on whether that (2024 date) means money obligated or money spent; we are still waiting on that,” Barker told council members. “There are six real (measures) that you can spend the funds to; each of them break out into further things.”
Those measures include public health expenditures, addressing negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, serving the hardest-hit communities and families, replacing lost public sector revenue, providing premium pay for essential workers, and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Broken down even further, those measures entail:
- Supporting public health expenditures: Recipients may use this funding to address a broad range of public health needs across COVID-19 mitigation, medical expenses, behavioral healthcare and public health resources.
- Addressing the negative economic impact caused by COVID: This can provide a range of assistance to individuals and households, small businesses and industries. This can also enable governments to rebuild staff capacity.
- Serving the hardest-hit families: This is aimed at social guidelines to help with health, housing and educational disparities, as well as promoting early childhood education and healthy childhood environments.
- Replacing lost public service revenue: This is aimed at the months that were hardest-hit, economic-wise, by the pandemic.
- Providing premium pay for essential workers: Recipients may use this funding to provide pay directly to a broad range of essential workers who must be physically present at their jobs, including staff at nursing homes, hospitals and home-care settings.
- Investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure: Recipients may use this funding to invest in wastewater, infrastructure, and projects including construction of publicly-owned stormwater treatment infrastructure.
Barkers said of those endeavors, officials are mainly focusing on sewer line replacement. As an example of that, he pointed to as recently as January, when the city signed entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring sanitary sewer overflows into compliance.
“A judge signed that, saying within 16 years, we had to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows in our community,” Barker said. “We said at the time that it would probably cost between $40 and $50 million to eliminate the effluent infiltration enough to where you didn’t have SSOs anymore.
“We think that in the next 10 to 15 years, that’s the biggest thing for us out there financially, and we have a project or two planned for each of the next few years. We have two going on right now. Using this one-time money to get a head start on that would be, in my mind, a wise investment.”
Barker also addressed water line replacement; currently, officials from the city’s Water and Sewer Department are working to continue replace undersized lines throughout the city. He said the city is approximately halfway through the list his administration was given when he took office in 2017.
“(Another) thing is drainage improvements; we got that guidance,” Barker said. “That’s whether it’s mapping our stormwater system – which I think we need to do right out of the gate next term – or replacing stormwater infrastructure in several of our older neighborhoods.”
That includes improvements to the sewer on North 37thAvenue in Ward 1; water and sewer improvements on Edwards, Mable and Williams streets in Ward 2; storm water detention at Gordons Creek and midtown sewer lining in Ward 3; water, sewer and drainage in the historic neighborhoods of Ward 4; and continued water line replacement in Palmers Crossing in Ward 5.
Barker also gave an example of what it would cost for major infrastructure improvements for certain streets, such as Mable Street in Ward 2. According to numbers provided by the administration, it would cost $341,000 for water main and service line replacements to the street; $504,000 for sewer main replacement; $825,000 for road and storm drain replacement; $227,000 for sidewalk replacement and additions; $465,000 for lighting; and $1.1 million for design, contingencies, engineering and inspection – for a total of $3.5 million.
“Your reach is going to be limited with these funds, so it’s important that as we have this conversation, the city must be strategic, realistic, fair and creative in how it uses these funds for infrastructure,” Barker said. “When we go forward, those things will be taken into consideration.
“That’s outside of whether you want to use them for any sort of the social issues, like education or health disparities. All of that is to say that $12 million certainly helps you, but it doesn’t go that far, and if you use it for a project like that, we’ll probably have to find some general fund dollars to get those things.”
Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado, who requested the update on the American Rescue Plan funds, said she wants to ensure a fair amount of the money goes to what she considers the lesser-served areas in her and other wards.
“If we’re going to spend close to $2 million or more on a roundabout (on Hardy Street), then the $3 million cost for a part of Mable Street does not raise my antennae at all,” she said. “It means that we haven’t done on Mable Street what we should have been doing over a period of years that got it to (its current) point in the first place.”