STARKVILLE – The city’s decision to spend $ 5.5 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds on parks and recreation did not please many citizens.
Homelessness and evictions, for example, are on the rise in the city, said Cate Van Hurdle, representative of the community action group Starkville Strong. Spending so much aid on “beautification,” she said, does nothing to address what she sees as more pressing problems.
“Because there is no money to help these people, the city may be forcing people to live in parks or sleep in those parks,” Van Hurdle said. “We started the pandemic with people in need. Now there are more of them than ever.
Aldermen voted on Sept. 21 on a plan to allocate its $ 6.2 million in APRA aid, intended to relieve local governments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He has already received half of the funds and the other half will arrive next year.
The plan provides $ 3.5 million for improvements to existing municipal parks, as well as $ 2 million to help complete construction of the Cornerstone Park baseball / softball complex under construction. The remainder will fund the hiring of two additional police officers ($ 500,000) and the improvement of water infrastructure in the Northgate subdivision ($ 200,000).
“The money doesn’t go to the 3-year-old who sleeps in a car or on the street,” Van Hurdle said. “Parks are great, but parks are not the most disadvantaged or damaged part in all of this. These are actually people who are losing their homes, people who cannot find jobs or put food on the table. That’s what this money is for.
Categories ARPA funds can be spent on include tourism, water / sewage / broadband, helping businesses and families disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and bonuses for public employees, according to federal guidelines.
Several community members are disappointed that the board has not asked for any public opinion on the use of ARPA funds, Van Hurdle said. She said little transparency was given to the public, as there was no breakdown or explanation of the desired spending for the parks.
Mayor Lynn Spruill developed the city’s ARPA plan with assistance from City Attorney Chris Latimer, with a strong focus on the tourism aspect. She said she has spoken with several members of the business community who support the city’s plan.
“This is a significant amount of money that is going to affect our city,” said Spruill. “I still maintain my conviction that spending it on parks is the largest and best way to reach the greatest percentage of citizens. We will never get that money again. We wouldn’t be able to do these things for 20 years like we can with this money.
While Spruill recognized increasing roaming and other infrastructure needs, she noted that there are other funding avenues to address these issues.
Spruill mentioned Tuesday that the displaced residents could apply for other federal funding, such as the Mississippian Rental Assistance Program. While the money is intended to help residents who lost their homes during the pandemic, Van Hurdle said most homeless people do not qualify for funding.
To qualify, residents must demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability, provide proof of economic downsizing, and present documentation of a current lease.
Eligible households must also include a person who was unemployed for at least 90 days prior to the application, suffered a reduction in household income, or endured economic hardship throughout the pandemic.
“Of all the active homeless cases that Starkville Strong treated, in August, nearly two-thirds of the homeless, whom we define as having no cohesive place to live, such as people sleeping on the couch from a friend, they are not considered homeless and are not eligible for RAMP funds, ”said Van Hurdle.
Cornerstone Park, located on Highway 25, will be a baseball and softball-focused recreational facility with an emphasis on hosting tournaments. The bond for the $ 22 million project is funded by a 1% restaurant and hotel sales tax, which began in August 2019. Cornerstone is still under construction.
Due to a price increase due to the pandemic, two fields from the original Cornerstone plan have been removed. The $ 2 million in ARPA funds will restore these fields, allowing more tournaments to be played in the facility.
The 1% sales tax is also intended to finance the maintenance and improvement of the city’s parks. Spruill said the amount of tax spent on existing parks changes every year. The $ 3.5 million in ARPA funds will be added to that tax money and 40% of the other 2% tourism tax the city collects that goes to the parks each year.
“Forty percent goes to parks from the 2 percent (sales tax) that already exists, but we’re also putting money into parks from the general fund,” Spruill said.
A call for “inclusive” decisions
The only councilor who voiced his opposition to funding the park last Tuesday was Hamp Beatty of Ward 5. Several residents in his neighborhood, particularly in the Northgate subdivision, have spoken to him of concerns about water issues in their homes. houses and, in turn, convinced the board of directors to allocate $ 200,000 towards solving the infrastructure problems in Northgate.
While Beatty said he is happy these residents are receiving funding, he believes there are other uses for the rest of the funds that more closely match what Congress intended, such as homelessness. He said he wanted Starkville to strategically examine all the ways the money could benefit the city.
“I think we’ve taken the plunge on this,” Beatty said. “Every time there is a hurricane, a pandemic, every time people are injured in a society, it is the most vulnerable people and those who are injured the most. I just think it’s the people who need this money.
Beatty has said he can cancel the plan at the next board meeting, but is not yet sure if that’s the route he wants to take.
Oktibbeha County NAACP President Yulanda Haddix echoed Van Hurdle and Beatty’s disappointment as she vigorously helped displaced tenants of Catherine Street apartments find new places to live – several have already been evicted from their homes and have nowhere to go. She said there was hardly any place to rent in Starkville, and because Spruill owns – she owns Spruill Properties which includes several apartments in the city – she wants the mayor to better understand the struggles of these members of the the community.
“The underserved community will always be underserved,” Haddix said. “We expect our leaders to make good decisions that are inclusive for all people and create avenues to make sure everyone is valued, but that’s not always the case. I would just like them to put the funds elsewhere instead of improving the climate in the community. ”