Council gets testy during sidewalk debate

Published 1:11 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

Nothing generates debate more in a public body than infrastructure spending, mostly on roads, but also sidewalks, such as at Tuesday’s council meeting.

 It lasted 30 minutes, was testy at times and brought applause from the audience.

 The crux of the issue is that the city has the chance to get a $372,000 state grant for installing sidewalks at local schools, at least three councilmen felt they were left out of the loop during the process of drawing up the application and not adequately informed about what was going on. They wanted a share of the funding to be spent at schools in their districts.

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 However, other councilmen said they were consulted; and the consultant on the project, Tommy Strickland of Neel-Schaffer of Hattiesburg, said the council was poled by telephone to get their approval on the proposal, and that city and school officials chose South Side as the first sole recipient because a survey showed it had the most kids, 64, who walked to school.

  Strickland said that the procedure by the state for funding allows only one school at a time to be funded.

  Three councilmen — Larry Watkins, Jason Todd Lane and Wayne Gouguet — said they were not adequately informed about the project and were out of the loop when it was being drawn up and had no input into the process, which they said they should have had.

 The council on April 5 voted 4-0 to submit the application, which called for spending the entire amount at South Side. The program is known as the Safe Routes to School program.

 Breland said that he and Councilwoman Lynn Bogan Bumpers were called and told the matter was being put back on the agenda again for Tuesday’s meeting, this time for discussion.

 “I want to know why it was put back on the agenda,” asked Breland. “There is no question that this proposal passed the council. The council voted on it and it passed 4-0 and councilman Gouguet was absent. If you sit here and vote on something that you know nothing about, then it’s shame on you,” said Breland, whose comments were followed by a round of applause from his supporters in the audience.

  Strickland said the procedure that has to be followed is that one school is designated to receive the funds as a primary school, and other funds are requested for studying other  schools for the next round of funding.

 He said you have to go for funding one school at a time during each round of funding. He said funding cannot be divided up among separate schools. He said city and school officials who helped put the application together agreed that South Side was the most in need of sidewalks.

 He said surveys showed South Side had 64 students who walk to school, Roseland Park 15 and West Side 40. He said Roseland Park not only had a low number, but it would be difficult to construct five-foot-wide sidewalks there because of open ditches not offering enough space.

 Gouguet said he was concerned about children in his district having to walk down Sixth Avenue from the housing projects to get to school and there was a need for sidewalks along that street. He said as many as 20 to 30 kids walk from the projects to West Side each day, most down the side or middle of the street.

 “I guess what rubbed me,” said Gouguet, “was that I was told we would do sidewalks in each area. There’s probably 30 kids that walk down Sixth Avenue from the projects to school every morning, and I thought we would do something about that.”

 Said Bumpers, “I don’t see any problem letting the money go to the school with the most problems and most kids walking. I am willing to wait my turn to get the money. I am willing to do that. This is great. One-hundred percent money with no strings or matching funds attached. We will not be paying for this so we need to make sure we get these funds.”

 Strickland said the city should receive a confirmation on whether or not the city gets the funding in July.

 In closing the discussion, Mayor Ed Pinero, Jr., told the council: “I think what we have here is a failure to communicate. It could have been done differently and we would not have had these questions.”