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COFFEEVILLE – The Yalobusha County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to earmark $200,000 of $2,351,837 the county received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for upgrades to the Yalobusha Water and Sewer District. The funding is contingent on the water district receiving a grant from the Mississippi Municipality and County Water Grant Program (MCWI). If the grant is awarded, MCWI will match the county’s $200,000 with another $200,000 for the proposed $2,387,550 project to add a new water well south of the Skuna River in southern Yalobusha County as well as other improvements.
Yalobusha Water and Sewer District has 653 meters, serving an estimated 2,100 people in Yalobusha County.
The vote during the first supervisor meeting of 2023, held Jan. 3 in the Coffeeville courthouse, came after lengthy discussions in an earlier December meeting and in the January meeting. The district’s water operator, Joel Rogers, shared in both meetings that the water district was operating near capacity.
“During the holidays, we were pumping all the water we could pump. Some customers on Hwy. 330, some who were up on hills, we could not keep them water because we don’t have a well on that side (of the county). Back when we only had three or four hundred customers, we didn’t have that problem,” Rogers told supervisors.
Officials from the water district initially requested $500,000 from the county’s ARPA funding after learning that roughly $1.8 million of the county’s $2,351,837 allocation has already been committed to projects, leaving approximately half a million dollars remaining. The prior commitments made by supervisors include $600,000 for bridge work at Gums Crossing, $600,000 for courthouse improvements including replacing windows, and over $600,000 for a MCWI grant for work at the county-owned water district that serves Ajinomoto Foods in Oakland.
An engineer employed by the water district, Shelia Williams, explained that the water district plans to move forward with the $2,387,550 project with or without the ARPA funding. Williams said that if supervisors awarded $500,000 from the county’s ARPA funds, and that money was matched by $500,000 grant from MCWI, the district would seek a $1,387,550 loan for the remainder of the project. She said the loan repayment would require a water rate increase, and the average water bill for each customer would increase $6 to $9 per month based on a 20-year loan repayment term or a 30-year repayment term. Williams added that if the district does not receive ARPA funding, the average monthly bill will increase an estimated $12 to $17 per month.
“That is in addition to what they already pay, you can see what the burden is going to be to these water customers,” Williams added.
Board of Supervisors President Cayce Washington said he has fielded a few calls from citizens following previous coverage in the Herald about the district’s funding request.
“The comments that I have fielded, they feel like the position (Yalobusha Water and Sewer District) is in is because it wasn’t properly managed in the past,” Washington said. “They say because of that, it got to where it is. They say why do we want to support poor management. I am not here to speak negatively about the association. I worked with Joel (Rogers) a number of years, everything I know about Joel is upstanding. But I can’t speak to years before. I am just sharing concerns that other people in the community have specific to this association.”
Washington also said he has fielded questions about why supervisors do not plan to allocate ARPA money to assist water associations in the county.
“I explained to them it is because y’all fall under a government entity,” Washington explained.
Board members who serve on the Yalobusha Water and Sewer District are appointed by supervisors, and the district is a subdistrict of the county, making it different from the independent water associations.
“All I want to do is right and fair. The one concern that I have, and I am not here to discredit Ben (Allen), Joel, or whoever else earns an income from the district, but operating expenses from some of these other water associations are a little bit lower that y’alls. Have you ever investigated that?” Washington asked.
“Our operating expenses are a whole lot more than everybody else,” Rogers answered. “We have over 200 miles of lines.”
Rogers also explained in December’s meeting that water district employees are included in the state retirement system, which also increases operating expenses. Rogers noted that the district serves customers in three different supervisors beats – District 1, District 2 and District 5 – and maintains three water wells.
“They are truly a rural water association, they have lines from Otuckalofa to the Skuna bottom,” District 5 Supervisor Gaylon Gray added.
“Please note, I am just laying out what has been said to me since we talked. I serve on the Jeff Davis board and it has been running well, but I am not the guy out there in the middle of the night like you guys have been all these years trying to keep lines running,” Washington said.
District 2 Supervisor Ken Rogers ultimately motioned to provide $250,000 for the Yalobusha Water and Sewer District.
“Since they fall under us, we need to help in some kind of way,” Ken Rogers noted about the water district.
“I can go for $150,000 or $200,000,” District 4 Supervisor Eddie Harris countered.
“I will amend it to $200,000,” Rogers said about his motion.
Supervisors then voted unanimously in favor of providing $200,000 from the county’s portion of the ARPA money to match the grant, if awarded.
Why The Yalobusha Water and Sewer District Is Different From Other Water
Associations In The County
The ARPA money allocated to counties initially created confusion after federal guidelines for spending the money limited projects to water and sewer, broadband internet and green technology. Last January more guidance was issued with new – final – rules that said the ARPA money can be spent “on any kind of regular government services” up to $10 million, giving supervisors broader discretion on how the money can be spent.
Meanwhile during the 2022 legislative session, state lawmakers created two pathways for water systems to obtain grant funding from a different pool of ARPA money the state received. Private, non-profit water associations can apply for a pool of money through the ARPA Rural Water Association Infrastructure Grant Program. Matching funds for this program are not required, meaning rural water associations in the county such as Billy’s Creek, Otuckalofa, Jeff Davis and others can apply for up to 100 percent of the cost for eligible projects, up to $2.5 million.
MCWI was the second pathway, created for counties, municipalities and water districts to apply for ARPA money the state received from the federal government. MCWI provides a 50 percent grant, but it must be matched from ARPA funds received by the county or municipality. Yalobusha Water and Sewer District falls into this category, and must have county ARPA funds to apply for matching grant funds from MCWI.
During January’s meeting, District 3 Supervisor Kenny Harmon noted that just about every water association in the county applied for grant funding from the Rural Water Associations Infrastructure Grant Program, and only one water association received a small grant allocation.
“One got a few little drops of water,” Harmon said. “It’s a pretty sticky situation.”
“As soon we got the free money, it has been a headache ever since,” Gray added. “Because everybody is coming.”
Gray also noted that the county cannot legally allocate the ARPA money to the independent, non-profit water associations in the county per state law.
“I am sure they understand that,” Ken Rogers said.