Stimulus Funds

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 6, 2009

Stimulus funds trickle from state, will fix pair of bridges

By Billy Davis

As part of the federal stimulus plan, Panola County government is set to receive $1.2 million from the Miss. Department of Transportation (MDOT) for the repair of bridges.

The pair of bridges, located on Mt. Level and Benson-Herron roads, represents a small portion of so-called “shovel ready” projects requested by Panola County’s government. 

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“Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad we got two projects chosen,” said road manager Lygunnah Bean. “But State Aid only got $10 million to disburse across 82 counties.”

Mississippi’s counties rely on the Office of State Aid, an agency within MDOT, to provide state and federal funds for road and bridge projects.

In fact, Panola County’s two bridge projects account for two of only 12 county projects across Mississippi that were selected to receive MDOT funds, said county engineer Larry Britt.

MDOT is set to receive $193.5 million in round one of federal stimulus funds, according to a press release from U.S. Congressman Travis Childers. Additional stimulus funds, eventually totaling $415.3 million, will come to MDOT over the next two years.

Childers’ two-page press release lists MDOT projects across Mississippi’s 1st District, which he represents. Panola County’s bridge repairs are included among eight 1st District projects in seven counties that together total $30.5 million.

The most costly project is a $21 million highway project in Lowndes County.

Childers has said he voted for the costly stimulus plan because of its expenditures for infrastructure improvements and school repairs.

Both Bean and Britt said they hope Panola and other counties receive more federal dollars in coming months, but neither said they have heard any assurances from MDOT that more dollars are coming.

A check of MDOT’s Web site by The Panolian did not show any information about the agency’s plans for disbursing stimulus funds. 

Panola County government is presently facing a budget crunch that could mean road improvement plans for the coming summer could be delayed or trimmed back. Any influx of federal dollars, therefore, could benefit the county greatly. 

Last year, Panola County supervisors opted to skip seasonal road projects rather than raise county millage. The board instead used its allocation of State Aid funds to improve several roads and still raised the millage rate five mills in order to balance its budget.  

In a related issue, Panola County state representatives Warner McBride and Joe Gardner voted this week to accept Mississippi’s share of federal stimulus funds.

The 65-52 vote, which was carried by House Democrats, represented an end run around Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who has said he may reject the funds.

The federal stimulus bill included a provision for state legislatures to accept the funds if the state’s governor opted to reject the money.

Mississippi expects to receive $2.3 billion in stimulus money, but Barbour has said he could turn down money due to extra costs related to unemployment payments for part-time workers.

The state currently pays unemployment benefits to full-time employees, and the $50 million in federal funds would boost unemployment pay by $25 a week.

Barbour called the extra costs a “$16 million-a-year-increase on Mississippi employers,” who pay unemployment insurance for their workers. He has asked the state senate to reject the federal funds.

Gardner said the stimulus money is expected to run out in three years, and at that time the legislature can vote to lower the unemployment payments to the current amount in order to avoid the higher taxes.

Gardner operates a business in Batesville that trains truck drivers. The business has no employees and does not pay unemployment insurance, he said.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t go back in two years and roll it back,” said McBride, who noted that the state’s unemployment rate is creeping toward 10 percent.