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Trails project funding leads to contentious debate

NATCHEZ — Lack of communication led to contention among the Natchez Board of Aldermen Tuesday.

Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields motioned for the board to allow David Gardner to initiate the second phase of the Natchez Trails Project stretching from St. Catherine Street to Forks of the Road. The board unanimously approved Fields’ motion.

Once complete, St. Catherine Street will feature refurbished sidewalks, handicapped ramps, landscaping work, lighting and historic exhibits.

The second phase is funded by a $607,623 Delta Region Transportation Development Program grant, but the city must put up a $151,905 match — a stipulation that did not satisfy Alderman James “Ricky” Gray.

While emphasizing he’s not against the trails project, Gray inquired why private contributions totaling nearly $400,000 were not being used to provide the match.

“We accepted the trails project because it wasn’t going to cost (the city) any money,” Gray said.

Gardner explained the first phase and second phase of the trails project are funded by two separate entities. The first phase is funded via government earmarks, matching grants and the private contributions totaling $2.9 million. Gardner said construction is set to begin on the first phase this week.

“That $400,000 (in private contributions) is being used once (first phase) construction starts,” Gardner said. “The pay requests will go to (City Clerk Donnie Holloway), and that’s when we’ll start tapping into that money.”

Gardner said the city has funds in its capital improvements budget to put up the match, and he first mentioned the match to board approximately three months ago.

“With this administration, I don’t know what the vision is,” Gray said.

“I know what my vision is, and this is it,” Fields responded. “This is a huge improvement.”

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the process in which matching funds are requested presents a dilemma.

“We need to obtain this information on the front end,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “This is the people’s money, it’s the taxpayers’ money and we have to be good stewards of it.

“This process is frustrating us, and I’m trying to say this as nicely and as eloquently as I possibly can, but the next time this comes up, other words are going to come out.”

“We just need to do a little more communicating,” Gray said.

Gardner agreed with Gray, saying briefing the board on city projects twice a month is not sufficient enough.

“I’ve got to have more time with them, and they’ve got to have more time with me because we have so much going on,” Gardner said.

In other business:

4The board unanimously approved to advertise for bids for Phase 2A of the North Natchez Drainage Project. Gardner said bid advertisements will run in The Natchez Democrat April 14 and 21, and the city will receive bids on May 25.

4The board unanimously approved to allow Mayor Jake Middleton and Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District to enter into a contract with an architectural firm for roof replacements at the Natchez Senior Citizen Multi-Purpose Center, the Natchez Police Department, the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum and Natchez Fire Station No. 2 on John R. Junkin Drive. The Mississippi Development Authority awarded a $552,885 grant to the city for the roof replacements last month.

4The board unanimously approved to appoint Gardner as the liaison officer for the city’s Natural Resources Conservation Service retaining wall projects on North Street, North Bluebird Drive, Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Oak Hill Drive. The board also unanimously approved to allow Middleton to sign-off on the projects.

4The board unanimously approved to allow Gardner to initiate plans for the city’s regional intermodal transit facility with the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The city applied for a $2.8 million grant for the facility, but only received $2.5 million. Gardner said MDOT is currently looking for additional funding. If the additional funding is not found, Gardner said the project’s budget will be modified.

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