Sunday Focus: What recovery funds did county receive from stimulus package?
NATCHEZ — When Natchez Wastewater plant operators look at the wastewater treatment facility’s sludge pond, they see green.
But that green isn’t just because of the particulate matter in the water — it’s the potential for savings.
In late 2011, the City of Natchez installed a solar-powered greenhouse for the collection, decontamination and drying of sewage sludge drawn from the wastewater lagoon at the water treatment plant on River Terminal Road.The drying process takes away 95 percent of the sludge’s bulk, allowing the sludge to be easily stored by piling it once dried. Former City Engineer and Natchez Water Works Director David Gardner said it saves the city $400,000 in annual sludge transportation costs.
The project was funded by $4.3 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — commonly known as President Obama’s stimulus package — and a $200,000, 20-year loan from the State of Mississippi’s revolving loan program.
The stimulus act was passed in February 2009 and expanded in 2011 to spend $840 billion to stimulate the economy through infrastructure, education and public service funding.
According to the Recovery Act’s website at Recovery.gov, its immediate goals were to create new jobs and save existing ones, spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth and foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending.
Recovery.gov — which tracked the distribution of the funds through May 2014 but has not since been updated — reports Adams County received all or part of 32 stimulus package funding awards totaling $27,742,299.
Some of the funding was directed through state agencies to Adams County, and much of the funding was transitory, used to pay salaries in the short-term.
Projects within the county included funding for the drug court program, equipment purchases for law enforcement, education funding, overlay of streets and more than $700,000 to replace roofing, kitchen cabinets, stove hoods and make other improvements at Maryland Heights apartments.
But more visible projects included the Mississippi River bridge lighting project, the construction of the new Natchez Transit facility, resurfacing of U.S. 84 and the wastewater treatment plant’s greenhouse.
Stalled but restarted
After three years, the greenhouse project hasn’t turned out exactly like officials thought it would. One of the initial hopes for the greenhouse was that the dried sludge could be sold as fertilizer, but regulation has for the present stayed that dream.
“This whole thing is new, and there is only one other facility in Mississippi with similar dryers,” Gardner said. “There are some new regulations as a result of this. We are finding out you have to get special permission from the department of agriculture to sell that, and we are in the process of doing that.”
Because the dried sludge can’t be sold, the city has been stockpiling it. In a few instances, it has been used on city properties, Gardner said, including the Duncan Park Golf Course.
Even though it is fully operational and can generate up to 1.9 tons of dried sludge a day — the city generates about 1.6 tons daily — the greenhouse hasn’t
been in continuous operation.
The wastewater facility has been concentrating on addressing industrial waste coming from Elevance, Gardner said, and so the greenhouse operations were temporarily suspended.
“We are in the process of getting an extra person hired down there so they can primarily concentrate on (the greenhouse),” he said. “We have been kind of understaffed because we were concentrating on the high-strength, industrial waste.”
Waste Water Treatment Plant Manager Michael Stewart said the greenhouse has been back in operation for two weeks after approximately six months of stalled operations.
Gardner said he believes, “in the next month you are going to see a lot of production (at the greenhouse) for the future. It is definitely something we are engaged in and want to continue in full force.”
A brighter future?
Used by more people — at least directly — than the greenhouse project are the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s two biggest stimulus programs in Adams County, the bridge lighting project and the Natchez Transit Facility.
While MDOT Southern Commissioner Tom King wouldn’t say the projects wouldn’t have happened without the stimulus funds, he said the state has been in “maintenance mode” some time because of funding.
“Mississippi depends on federal money immensely,” he said. “Between 52 and 53 percent of our (transportation) money comes from the feds, with the rest coming from fees and the gasoline tax. Whether you build a highway or a bridge or whatever you do, you have to have money to take care of what you built, and right now we are in maintenance mode with no new building.”
The Mississippi River bridge lighting project created only temporary jobs, but the infrastructure improvement of replacing the lighting system on the bridge with navigation, aviation and aesthetic lighting systems has lasted.
The $1.6 million bridge system creates a significant light source for Miss-Lou travelers during the night hours, replacing an antiquated hanging light system that often left the spans ill-illumined.
But the project has also needed several engineering adjustments through the years. The initial design and infrastructure was prone to overheating, which would cause lights to blink out of service. Work to address the issue continued through last year.
King said despite the headache the blinking lights caused, he thinks the project was money well spent.
“I know at night the bridge is beautiful, it enhances the whole area,” he said. “It is a constant battle with us to repair the decorative lights, but you do the best you can with the money you have to deal with priorities.”
The new Natchez Transit Facility — which MDOT partnered with the City of Natchez on — has also been a success in King’s estimation.
“I believe we developed a really fantastic, multi-use, regional — and I want to emphasize that word, regional — facility,” he said. “The facility is designed to be a passenger transfer hub, a modern maintenance center and a regional transportation call-in dispatch center. It is open and will help more workers get more jobs, more veterans get to the veteran’s administration, help seniors have access to health care and nutrition and students get to school.”