Officials: Trump’s cuts could be bad news for area

Published 12:13 am Sunday, April 9, 2017


NATCHEZ — In his recently unveiled “budget blueprint,” President Donald Trump proposes deep cuts to programs and agencies that have provided millions of dollars for projects and programs in Natchez and Adams County.

While local leaders await more details about the possible effects of the federal budget cuts, several say the massive cuts could be bad news.

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Of particular concern, leaders say, is the elimination of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program and the Delta Regional Authority and cuts to Meals on Wheels, transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the fiscal year 2018 plans.

The CDBG program, first enacted in 1974, is a popular flexible funding program used by communities across the nation to fund a variety of projects.

Most recently, the city hopes to fund a $500,000 renovation of the fire station on Vaughn Drive with the help of a CDBG. The aging building does not comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, has fire code violations, water intrusions and other issues officials are concerned could cause health problems for firefighters.

City of Natchez Community Development Director James Johnston, who serves as the city’s grant writer, said CDBGs have provided millions of dollars in past years for projects, including Under-the-Hill infrastructure, senior center renovations, drainage, the reconstruction of Government Fleet Road, park improvements such as the spraygrounds at North Natchez Pakr, renovation of the Sunshine Shelter and several others.

“(CDBGs) can be used for a multitude of public activities, (including) streets, wastewater, drainage, public buildings, economic development,” Johnston said. “It’s a very popular program for communities. It’s one of the few federal programs considered non-federal so (CDBGs) can be matched with other federal funds for projects.”

Adams County Administrator Joe Murray said the CDBG programs have helped fund several projects in the six years he has worked for the county.

The county has utilized CDBGs to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs to the Department of Human Services building, drainage issues on Kingston Road, Pineview and Grafton Heights.

CDBG funds were also used to purchase the crane located at the Natchez-Adams County Port’s T-dock for approximately $960,000, with $500,000 from the Mississippi Department of Transportation and a little more than $100,000 in local match funds.

CDBG monies also helped fund a more than $3.9 million project to construct sewer lines and an access road to the Adams County Correctional Facility.

Proposed cuts to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could also affect the local area. Vicksburg USACE District spokesman Greg Raimondo said the Corps does not yet know exactly how its budget will be affected.

The Corps has funded local drainage and levee projects, as well as the Natchez bluff stabilization project.

Delta Regional Authority, which the budget blueprint proposes eliminating, has recently provided several grants for the area as well.

A $73,000 no-match DRA grant funded the workforce development program that led to Adams County becoming a Certified Work Ready Community through the American Council on Testing. The program seeks to certify the skill levels of workers to help economic developers market the area to prospective businesses.

DRA also provided a more than $1.2 million grant to support the first phase of construction of a levee at the former Belwood Country Club site, which would make 110 acres of county-owned property near the port suitable for industrial use.

In 2016, DRA hosted an Innovative Readiness Training medical clinic at which more than 3,000 residents received free medical, dental and other health care from military personnel.

DRA was a major sponsor of the Natchez Tricentennial celebration, providing $100,000 to support the city’s efforts.

“We could not have done what we did last year without the DRA,” said Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs, who served as director of the tricentennial. “If we would have not had that support, I don’t know what we would have done.”

In response to the proposal to eliminate the DRA, Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill said the agency invested $163 million into more than 1,000 projects that have partnered with other public and private investments for a total of $3.3 billion.

“You cannot advocate for infrastructure development and economic security in rural America without also supporting the mechanisms, such as DRA, that make those projects a reality,” he said. “DRA has a dedicated team that will remain focused on the projects and programs that are building the Delta while we work through this long budget process.”

On the transportation front, Natchez Transit System Executive Director Sabrena Bartley said any proposed cuts to the federal transportation budget could affect the state department of transportation.

“We do know that anything that affects the state budget would trickle down and affect our budget,” she said. “But we have not received specifics. I am concerned that any budget cuts would impact our ability to apply for and receive transit funds.”

Bartley, who is also director of the senior center, said she is more concerned, though, about proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services and how that could affect the center’s Meals on Wheels program. Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District is the conduit through which the center and other area communities receive those funds.

“That would impact our senior community in a very negative way,” Bartley said. “For them not to be able to get a meal or us transportation to take a meal to them, that is all very scary. All of that really concerns me. I don’t want to the seniors in our community or any community (to) receive less than they already do. They don’t receive enough as it is.”

Bartley said she and her staff are already formulating a plan to find different ways of funding meal-delivery services in case the funding does get cut and local programs take a big hit.

“We plan to at least explore other avenues so we can try to keep these services,” Bartley said.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have decried cuts to the Meals on Wheels program.

Trump will present a comprehensive budget plan in May. Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus said it is “wait and see” until then about how funds will be disbuersed and affect the area.

The funding sources that could be hit by cuts, Lazarus said, are vitally important to future of the area. The projects for which the county utilizes grants are projects the county would have to do regardless of whether it received funding help.

“Like the roof at the health department or blacktopping roads (with CDBG funds), you’re going to have to do that anyway,” Lazarus said. “We don’t just get a grant to get a grant. All these projects, we have to do anyway. We’re just trying to stretch our dollars.”

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said federal budget cuts could have potentially “devastating” effects on Natchez and Adams County.

“As local governments, we actually depend on those dollars to help with infrastructure and other needs,” Grennell said. “It’s going to impact us, and it’s going to be devastating.”

Lazarus said he is most concerned that infrastructure money will go toward building a border wall, as Trump has proposed, rather than projects that help residents in Adams County.

“I’m worried (Trump) takes all the infrastructure money (he cuts), and it goes to the wall,” Lazarus said. “The wall is not going to affect me. That levee at Belwood is affecting me. The roads affect me. I have plenty of shovel-ready projects that are ready to go if he wants to do them.”