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Stimulating economy? How federal money is being spent in the Miss-Lou

NATCHEZ — At least $35 million in federal stimulus money has temporarily filled coffers, funded projects and created jobs in the Miss-Lou since February 2009.

Those tracking the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars say approximately 370 local jobs were created, though more than 200 were temporary.

And though several Web sites track the funds — www.recovery.gov and www.usaspending.gov are the most comprehensive — following the money isn’t very easy.

The Mississippi Office of the State Auditor opted from the beginning to closely watch dollars coming into the state, assigning employees to focus on the task and using stimulus money to hire contractors to monitor funds, State Auditor Stacey Pickering said.

“One of our biggest hurdles is trying to define what money is coming into the state,” Pickering said. “There is not a comprehensive list that exists out there. What we have found is a lot of broken communication between the federal government and the recipients.”

At times recipients didn’t even know they had received stimulus money, Pickering said.

The government Web sites tracking dollars entirely on recipient reporting.

Though most come close, few of the numbers listed on the tracking Web sites match those provided by Miss-Lou agencies when contacted. Other listings on the Web sites are simply incorrect, including a sum of education dollars that the list says went to the Natchez-Adams County Port Commission.

Natchez and Adams County: Where the jobs went

In total, at least $22 million was directed to Adams County agencies. The Natchez-Adams School District, Natchez Transit, AJFC and Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District created a combined 24.5 permanent jobs with stimulus funds.

The Natchez-Adams School District reports using $3,048,619.75 in stimulus funds to create 90.5 temporary summer jobs — including tutors and teaching assistants — in the Natchez schools, including the three private schools.

Of the $3 million, $482,883 went to local salaries, Natchez-Adams School District Director of Federal Programs, Marilyn Alexander-Turner said.

“The funds were used to hire employees, provide professional development and purchase instructional materials,” Superintendent Anthony Morris said.

The Natchez-Adams School District also received an additional $1,141,501 for the special education department. Two jobs, both of which were retained, were created as a result of the additional money.

In total, 10.5 of the district’s stimulus-funded jobs became permanent additions to the district’s budget. Turner said when the funds run out, the district will find additional grant monies to cover the salaries.

Natchez Transit received $3,536,292 from ARRA, using $200,000 to pay employees, said City Engineer David Gardner, who has handled ARRA dollars for the city.

“The income will circulate through the community several times,” Gardner said.

Six call-center employees, three mechanics and four part-time drivers were hired.

The Southwest Planning and Development District — which serves several counties — received $1,083,916 in funding which was distributed to several programs including the Department of Human Services nutrition services. The district’s money also hired one person to administer the childcare program, Director Wirt Peterson said.

“This is a program where we assist low-income parents in paying for childcare while they are involved in work activities,” Peterson said. “This program will assist in childcare, to allow parents to go to work or school.”

AJFC Community Action Agency created two jobs in Adams County with the $494,862 in stimulus funds it received for the Head Start Program.

CEO Sandra Sewell said another portion of its funding went to help teachers find employment by helping them with the costs of becoming certified.

Temporary jobs

The biggest bulk of temporary work was construction jobs, and the area saw plenty.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation was awarded $6.6 million that was spent in Adams County, and part of that money trickled down to the City of Natchez for overlay work on several downtown streets.

The remainder of the funds, $4 million and $1.6 million, were spent on an overlay project on U.S. 84 North and the bridge lighting.

MDOT District 7 Engineer Darrell Broome said between the three projects, approximately 60 to 70 temporary construction jobs were created. Broome said the main benefit, however, was getting some projects completed early.

“These were projects we had already planned to do, and we were able to get them online early,” Broome said. “It was additional work we were able to get into the community, and we hope it does do a lot of good.”

The Natchez Wastewater plant created 17.24 temporary jobs using $4 million in stimulus funds to put solar drying units in its Wastewater Treatment Plant. Gardner said the drying units could make a profit for the city.

“The units dry our sludge and convert it into a Class A bio solid that is not regulated by the state,” Gardner said. “We will not have to haul the waste anywhere once it is reclassified, and that will save around $300,000 a year.

“As a solid the waste has agricultural benefits, so we could get people to come get it.”

Gardner said installing the solar units was something the city planned to eventually do and was glad to get it done.

The Adams County Water Association received $961,000 and used the money for infrastructure upgrades, General Manager Ken Herring said.

“What we have done is be able to save the association close to $1 million that we would have incurred,” Herring said. “It saved us by saving our community. As a non-profit, what we save or spend is a reflection on how much our water bills are.”

The first phase of the stimulus funding went toward laying 44,000 feet of new water mains in the areas of Lower Woodville Road, Col. John Pitchford Parkway, Carthage Point Road, Hutchins Landing Road, Morgantown Road and Wickcliff Road.

“This allows us to get water to people that otherwise would not have been economically viable,” Herring said. “We have had people who called in and said how much they appreciate getting the water turned on in their area.”

The second phase was spent on plant upgrades on Kingston and Greenfield roads.

“We sized the plants where they would double the output,” Herring said. “We have had a lot of growth in last 20 years.”

The Natchez Housing Authority used its $707,557 in stimulus funds to get ahead and created 9.44 construction jobs. Executive Director Alan Ingram said some of the new hires included residents of the housing units under construction.

In the Maryland Heights Apartments, many of the roofs were damaged during Hurricane Gustav, and while some were replaced then, Ingram said not all were. The housing authority also did some re-roofing in the Kenneth Graves Subdivision.

“The ones that were not replaced with insurance money, we are doing them with the grant money,” Ingram said.

Ingram said the housing authority is installing new kitchen cabinets and stove vents in Maryland Heights.

“That is where the biggest amount of the money is being spent,” Ingram said.

Ingram said four stairwells were also replaced at Williams Apartments.

The Natchez National Historical Park Service received $42,000, and used it to paint the McCallum House, which is part of the William Johnson House, and restore and rewire the chandeliers in Melrose.

Richard Branyan, whose company Lower Lodge Conservation restored the chandeliers, said the bid was between $15,000 and $20,000. Branyan said the project created work for three people.

“Supplies were bought locally, or with American companies,” Branyan said. “The chandeliers will be in Melrose in another couple of weeks.”

Edgin Construction Company, did the work on the McCallum House, but could not be reached for details.

AJFC received another $950,946 in stimulus dollars, and among other projects, created 100 summer jobs for young adults between the ages of 19-24 in its seven-county service area, including Adams County. Sewell said AJFC also used a portion of the money to make upgrades to its facilities.

The school district also received an additional $200,582, which was spent on upgrades and supplies.

The Boys and Girls Club of the Miss-Lou, received $42,000 according to recovery.gov, but leaders of the club could not be reached for comment.

Adams County received $40,211 in stimulus money, and the money was allocated to the drug court. Coordinator Flavis Wiley said the money had yet to be spent due to a delay at the local level. She could not provide more details.

Concordia Parish: Where the jobs went

In total, at least $12 million in ARRA funds entered Concordia Parish.

The Concordia Parish School Board received approximately $1,770,000 in stimulus money through federal and state programs, Business Manager Tom O’Neal said.

Some of the funds were used for employment and others were not.

The school district employed 18 temporary contract workers through its federal programs, and hired 23 teachers.

While the 18 temporary workers will not be back without additional federal money, the 23 teachers would have been hired regardless of stimulus funding because of need, O’Neal said.

The grant to the Ferriday Housing Authority of $131,959 for general repairs generated seven temporary, two-month-long jobs.

The money was used to repair and replace roofs at the Housing Authority, and contractor Lee Scott said he hired from the immediate area.

“I was able to employ individuals who lived in the complex, and we were fortunate enough to get one or two skilled individuals, and that gave them an opportunity to work as a result of that project,” he said.

And working on that project gave Scott contacts with several people he can use for future work.

“We wound up with four individuals (on the crew) who we will probably use from time to time.”

The government’s stimulus reporting Web site, www.recovery.gov, reports that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded an $8,410,927 project for stone repairs to revetments and dikes along the Mississippi River, resulting in approximately 5 jobs.

The site also reports a $1,507,621 award was given by the Corps for the fabrication and delivery of 1,303 timber hinge needles to the Old River over bank structure in Vidalia. The project reportedly resulted in 20 jobs.

Law enforcement agencies were channeled stimulus money through the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program.

No jobs were created through the grant, which gave the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office $158,897, the Vidalia Police Department $96,524 and the Ferriday Police Department $64,241.

The money was used to buy equipment.

In the case of the CPSO, that money bought two Ford Crown Victoria police vehicles, 13 Tasers, 43 Taser cartridges, work release equipment, radios, security cameras and computer software that CPSO Spokesperson Kathleen Stevens said will eventually be used to link the different agencies in the parish courthouse. The Taser cartridges were bought in two different purchases, 26 of them in one purchase and 17 in the second.

Vidalia Police Chief Ronnie G. “Tapper” Hendricks said the money was used to buy communication equipment.

In Ferriday, the money was used to buy new vehicles, cameras and computers, Assistant Police Chief Johnny Evans said.

“There were no jobs created,” he said. “By the time you buy a couple of police (cruiser) units and computers, the money is gone.”

Avoiding fraud

With so much money and so many recipients, fraud is a very real fear, Pickering said.

Without funding and a directive from the U.S. Congress to the states, local auditors have had to take accountability into their own hands, he said.

“In Mississippi, our Legislature passed a special piece of legislation authorizing the auditor’s office to actually monitor these funds,” Pickering said. “We’ve been well ahead of the curve on monitoring stimulus money.

“We feel we know as much as you can know about what has come into Mississippi.”

In fact, Pickering said he will announce details later this week about several investigations his office is leading into stimulus fraud.

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