Lawmakers wanted input on spending $1.8 billion in pandemic stimulus. They got $7 billion in requests.

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JACKSON, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – In multiple days of hearings held over several weeks, lawmakers asked local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofits for input on how the Legislature should spend $1.8 billion in federal pandemic stimulus money.

The groups provided the special Senate subcommittee with nearly $7 billion in requests.

“We have a lot to parse through and a difficult challenge,” said Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, chair of the special subcommittee on American Rescue Plan Act spending. “I did feel like going into this that $1.8 billion would be sufficient … Now I’ve seen differently. Did some folks ask for a car when they could use a bicycle? Yes. But I’d say most of the requests were legitimate.”

It would appear Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, has many unmet needs in nearly every aspect of public life and suffers from decades of neglected maintenance, staffing and underfunding that even the ARPA federal windfall can’t cover.

Lawmakers heard about dilapidated buildings, crumbling water and sewer pipes and antiquated computer systems. They heard about dire shortages of nurses and doctors, law enforcement officers and social workers. They heard about the need to improve workforce training and tourism marketing. They heard about the need for a state cancer center and long overdue maintenance at county health departments, and even for a Highway Patrol helicopter.

“Y’all asked us for how much wee needed, not how much we expected to get,” state Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said before he presented the Health Department’s request for $107 million in ARPA funds — nearly half of it for rehabbing county health department and other decades old buildings. He showed slides of leaking roofs, peeling linoleum floors and even a snake that sneaked in through a hole in a wall. He said the feds had recently expressed dismay that Mississippi’s public health system “still used fax machines” to communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mississippi is behind most other states in planning for and spending its ARPA funds. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has taken the lead, touring the state over the summer meeting with local governments and community leaders and creating the ARPA subcommittee. The committee plans to present lawmakers with recommendations for the spending in the legislative session that begins in January.

Polk said some projects and spending agencies have proposed could not realistically be completed by the 2026 deadline ARPA funds.

Mississippi’s city and county governments are also receiving a combined $900 million in ARPA funds. Hosemann, who has called for the money to be spent in “transformational” ways that will have an impact for generations, has proposed the Legislature use up to half its funds to match city and county spending, to provide for larger projects.

The ARPA subcommittee wrapped up its hearings on Monday and Tuesday, although Polk said there could be others called before the end of the year.

Some requests lawmakers heard this week include:

Counties and cities

Up to $900 million in matching funds

Lawmakers heard from Derrick Surrette, director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors and Shari Veazey, director of the Mississippi Municipal League.

Both said most of Mississippi’s local governments are waiting to spend their $900 million in ARPA funds, and both indicated more guidance, technical assistance and matching funds from the state would be appreciated.

“We have been encouraging cities to focus on water and sewer,” Veazey said, largely because it’s clearly allowed spending in the federal rules for ARPA. She gave examples of small “town A,” and increasing sizes cities B, C, and D to outline the challenges they face.

“Town A has a population of 210,” Veazey said. “It’s water and sewer needs have been identified as $586,873. It’s total ARPA it’s receiving is $44,644 … It’s really amazing what some of the things cost, and it gives you some idea why this work hasn’t been done before.”

Surrette said that counties largely do not own or operate water and sewerage, and giving the county money to water associations or city systems would require setting up and riding herd over a grant program. He said counties would still be on the hook to ensure the money was spent properly even if it granted it to others, a cause for concern. He said counties would much prefer to spend ARPA funds on badly needed road and bridge work, but to do so they must show lost revenue from the pandemic to shift the money to general funds. He’s hoping Congress will pass a pending measure to provide more flexibility.

“If there’s one priority need for counties, it would be technical assistance,” Surrette said, noting that Tennessee has created such a state level program of experts and consultants to help local governments with ARPA spending.

Rural water associations

$1.4 billion

Kirby Mayfield of the Mississippi Rural Water Association said a majority of Mississippians get their water from the 1,052 member associations, most of them small nonprofits. He said most of the systems were created in the 1960s and 1970s when affordable USDA loans and grants were available, and now they cannot afford needed upgrades and replacements.

READ MORE: Should safe drinking water be a priority for Mississippi’s federal stimulus spending?

Mayfield said about a third of his membership responded to a MRWA survey on needed infrastructure upgrades for ARPA funding and provided a list costing about $700 million. Asked by lawmakers to estimate the total need of upgrades statewide, Mayfield said, “double that $700 million.” He said many systems are facing “infrastructure failure” and struggling to meet state and federal clean water regulations and the systems are also struggling with worker shortages.

University of Mississippi Medical Center

$360 million

LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor and dean of UMMC, said $360 million is a rough estimate of needs for the state’s only research hospital and public medical school, and that the center is working on firmer figures.

Woodward told lawmakers the medical center campus has many aging buildings dating back to the 1950s and water, sewer and other infrastructure in need of upgrades. But she said lack of staffing is biggest challenge facing UMMC — as it is for hospitals nationwide.

“We have 60 beds that have been closed because of staffing shortages,” Woodward said, saying nurses, respiratory therapists and lab technicians are also in short supply. UMMC hopes ARPA money can be used as pay and scholarship incentives for recruiting and retaining health workers.

Woodward said one “big ticket item” that could have a generational impact on the state would be building a state cancer center.

“Mississippi has several small cancer centers, but not a comprehensive cancer center,” Woodward said.

Department of Mental Health

$174.3 million over five years

Mental Health Director Wendy Bailey said ARPA funds could help the state hasten the federally mandated shift from institutional mental health care to community based services, and said the pandemic has increased demand for services.

The agency wants to use the federal funds to expand mobile crisis teams and other crisis services, provide mental health training and resources for law enforcement and provide premium pay to help combat staff shortages, among other needs.

Child Protection Services

$75 million

Child Protection Services Commissioner Andrea Sanders said the pandemic has exacerbated the risk factors for child abuse, “and the collateral damage will be felt in Mississippi and the world for the next decade.”

The agency wants to use the federal funds to continue a shift from reactive to proactive services and to meet requirements to get out from under decrees and federal oversight from the nearly two decades old Olivia Y. federal court case against the state for failure to protect children in its custody.

The money would help provide more case workers and managers to reduce large caseloads and help the agency “find solutions to keep families safely together” and prevent child abuse. Money is also needed, Sanders said, to help older youth in foster care transition into adulthood and find jobs and to make adoption and guardianship easier for families who want to help.

Tourism

$52 million, through 2024

Mississippi Tourism Association President Marlo Dorsey told lawmakers ARPA funds provide an opportunity for “a strategic investment to recover and grow Mississippi’s fourth largest industry.”

Dorsey said tourism was hit hard by the pandemic in Mississippi — which lost about $2.6 billion in travel spending — and nationwide, but that Mississippi’s tourism has rebounded remarkably compared to other states. She said investment of ARPA money in tourism will provide a major return on investment for the state’s economy.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now to change the trajectory of tourism in Mississippi,” Dorsey said.

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