The Oktibbeha County Lake dam was once again a topic of debate during Monday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
As the Board prepared to vote on a motion to allocate state funds to the Blackjack Road improvement project, District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard requested some State Aid money be put toward the proposed project to replace the damaged county lake dam and levee, a project with an estimated cost between $7 million and $8 million.
Howard said the law required state funds to go to projects where the need was greatest and argued replacing the dam was the most pressing issue facing the county, as he has done since initial reports of the dam's failing integrity were reported in January.
Concerning the Blackjack Road project, Howard said he understood there was a safety factor regarding the road but noted the risk for citizens near the dam was almost certainly higher.
"It's [Blackjack Road] not any more of a safety issue than Oktibbeha County Lake," Howard said.
Pointing to the fact that the county dam has been a problem for years, Howard said he could not understand why action was not being taken by the Board ahead of anything else.
"This can has been kicked down the road for over four years now, and every time it comes to the table, there's always a reason why we can't, there's always a reason why we should wait, there's always a reason why it's too much, but then we go and do the same projects in the county that cost more for the same reason, and that's safety, so again, I'm wondering why?" Howard said.
The Blackjack Road Project has an estimated $9.5 million price tag after engineering fees, County Engineer Clyde Pritchard said on Monday.
Without state money, Pritchard said the county was $525,773 short and warned the Board the project would likely cost around $11 million if it had to be bid again.
The missing funds, Pritchard said, would make up the contingency fund for the project. Until all funds for the project were secured, it could not move forward, putting the Board on a timer since Supervisors approved a bid good for a limited amount of time from Burns Dirt Construction on Feb. 3.
County Administrator Emily Garrard said if the Board wanted to move forward with the Blackjack Road project, action needed to be taken.
“If we leave this room without signing these contracts and approving this, we're going to lose this project," Garrard said. "If we can't get bond money or any other money within that time, before this project has to go out and bid again, we're going to lose the project.”
Board Attorney Rob Roberson said he was working to try and secure an additional $2 million for the project but could in no way promise those funds.
"I do not want to, in any way, shape or form, guarantee this board that will actually occur," Roberson said.
However, Roberson said if his efforts did pay off, the State Aid money would bounce back to the county and could be used for another project,such as the Oktibbeha County Lake dam replacement.
Still, Howard said he could not support another project while the dam remained dangerous and accused the Board of not valuing the lives of those who would be affected if the dam were to break, adding he believed other Board members were hoping the problem would become somebody else's issue to fix.
“What it really boils down to, if a few people get drowned out there, ain't a big deal," Howard said. "Other than that, it's let's kick it down the road, let's hope we can get through this term and let somebody else worry about it. That's what I've seen, that's what I've been shown, that's the votes that have taken place.”
Board President and District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said he recognized Howard's comments were not coming from a negative place.
“I have a lot of respect for Supervisor Howard, and he's very passionate about this," Montgomery said. "I understand that someone may construe some anger in this. I see passion. At the same time, everyone has an opinion on this, and my opinion is we need to be fair to all sides.”
Montgomery said he believed there were more projects with more moving parts happening right now in Oktibbeha County than ever before and all options had to be carefully considered.
"There's need throughout the Districts, throughout the county," Montgomery said.
Because of the high amount of need, Montgomery said Supervisors were being pulled in multiple directions and disagreements were bound to pop up.
“I've got to be fair to all parties involved and all the taxpayers in Oktibbeha County and at the same time be fair to the people that are behind that dam as well, and that's hard to do sometimes," Montgomery said. "That's when you see people be passionate sometimes because that's what they feel. What I feel is what can we do what’s best for the citizens of Oktibbeha County.”
The county lake dam and the project to replace it still had too many unanswered questions, Montgomery said, for him to feel comfortable going all in on such an expensive undertaking.
During the Feb. 3 Board meeting, Supervisors, except for Howard, voted against authorizing Pritchard to perform preliminary work on the dam to prepare for its replacement, largely due to the $250,000 cost the work carried with it.
At Monday's meeting, Pritchard said he still could not answer if the road running over the dam, County Lake Road, was completely safe, to what degree the levee’s internal integrity was damaged or how feasible it would be to completely drain the lake.
Pritchard said the situation was "not as simple" as letting the water flow freely, noting the lake was 18 square miles of water trying to get to places were people currently were not dealing with that much water.
Currently, thanks to an emergency plan adopted by the Board in January, Pritchard and county officials are working to lower the lake enough that a riser device can be removed, but Pritchard said that would still not guarantee a "monsoon" rain event would fill the lake up again, despite water being able to exit four times as quickly without the riser.
Montgomery said he could not support the project with no many lingering questions.
"What I won't commit to is redoing the whole levee before A, we know a total cost on it and B, is it necessary?" Montgomery said.
With a public hearing on the issue scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, Montgomery said he was looking forward to hearing from the citizens, but he pointed to a meeting between Pritchard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality scheduled for March 2 as likely to be eye-opening and influential in his decisions on the matter going forward.
"The Corps of Engineers is going to answer the question I need to hear answered, and that is, is it safe to cut the riser off and allow four times the flow through?" Montgomery said.
The Corps provided aid to county officials in January when the dam was initially found to be at a high danger of breaching and helped construct the plan to utilize pumps to lower the lake's level, a plan which has been implemented for weeks.
Before last week’s rain, the lake had lowered nine feet, Pritchard said on Monday, but the rain undid much of that progress.
MDEQ, who also provided assistance in January, has instructed the county to fix the dam for decades for fear of structural problems.
Howard said he did not believe the Board would change their mind based on their previous attitudes toward the issue.
“I think it's been proven by the Board's inaction that they're really not interested in doing what needs to be done out there at the county lake," Howard said. "It's pretty much a given at this point.”
More information could sway Montgomery's mind, he said, but added the cost of such a project was always something that needed to be considered.
“I want to eliminate the danger and at the same time save Oktibbeha County economically," Montgomery said. "That's what I'm shooting for.”
Despite Howard's criticism, Montgomery said he was concerned about the dam and was only trying to look at all angles surrounding the issue.
"I like his passion, but at the end of the day, we don't always have to agree," Montgomery said.
Again pointing to the requirement for state money to go where the need is greatest, Howard said he could not imagine the county making a convincing argument for why it did not fix the dam if it was dragged into court over the matter.
"In court, do you think they would say a bad road takes precedent over a dam that's about to break?" Howard said.
Howard added that he possibility of the matter being taken to court was very real and said the Board's inaction on the issue bordered on negligence.
"I'm absolutely positive if that dam were to break, Oktibbeha County would be facing a huge lawsuit," Howard said.
Ultimately, Howard was the sole vote against allocating funds to the Blackjack Road project as it passed 4-1.
Additionally, Supervisors voted unanimously to finalize the contract between the county and Burns Dirt Construction for the Blackjack Road project as well as a contract for Burns Dirt Construction to move in and remove the Oktibbeha County Lake riser as soon as the water gets low enough.
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