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Officials mull possibility of referendum for drainage work


City chief operations officer David Armstrong

City chief operations officer David Armstrong



Nathan Gregory



Columbus councilmen and department heads got a wake-up call last week when they saw firsthand the severity of some drainage deficiencies in their own back yard.  


Coming off of a two-day tour of all six of the city's wards, officials used a strategic planning retreat Thursday to think about how to solve one of the city's most pressing needs. 


Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government project manager Phil Hardwick tasked a group of department heads, including chief operations officer David Armstrong, to brainstorm ways infrastructure improvements can be achieved. The number one item on the group's list was supporting a referendum on a $10 million bond issue to improve citywide drainage. 


"There was a study done many years ago that said it would cost X amount of millions of dollars to do a citywide comprehensive drainage program," Armstrong said. "We figured somewhere right now in between $40 and $50 million. That's not realistic. What we thought was achievable...was to do this in stages. We focused on a $10 million partial work program that our engineers could come up with to address citywide drainage." 


The city doesn't have that money in its coffers. It would have to be with a bond issue, Armstrong said. 


"That's a doable, measurable goal to begin to address drainage," he said. "The reality for us is either we address it or we don't address it. We all know we've got a problem whether we do or we don't." 


Columbus residents will have their say. Referendums require a 60-percent-plus-one approval tally at the ballot box to pass such a bond issue. Nearly 31 percent, or 5,187, of the city's 16,885 registered voters cast ballots in this year's June 4 general election. If the same number of people voted on a bond issue, 3,113 would have to vote in favor before it could move forward.  


Councilmen Kabir Karriem and Gene Taylor said they thought there would be enough support from residents to get the required vote.  


"If that's one of the things we have to do to improve the quality of life here in the city of Columbus, I can't fight that and I won't be against it," Taylor said. "I believe the city has developed a positive attitude and wants to see Columbus be one of the best cities in the state of Mississippi and I do believe you would get 60 percent." 


Karriem added that if more people saw an example of drainage problems like the one officials saw Wednesday on Seventh Avenue North -- one side of a sewer pipe in a ditch is propped up by a cinderblock and a rope tied to a tree to prevent a collapse -- he'd be surprised not to have strong backing from voters. 


"If you could close your eyes and someone took you down there, you wouldn't have even thought you were in Columbus," he said. "You would have thought you were in Haiti or some third world country." 


Karriem noted he has been adamant in instituting a bond issue since he first took office in 2009 and the city is at a turning point now where it "has to do something." 


"I don't think we can do everything at one time, but the idea of putting a plan together and implementing it in phases, that's the right approach," he said. "We have to start somewhere. We've spent a lot of time emphasizing the work of the (Golden Triangle Development) Link, and they do a good job. They're bringing in a lot of industry, but I think we're missing part of the puzzle, and that's the people. We're forgetting that's what it's all about: Making sure they're employed but also making sure they have a good quality of life. I think we're missing the ball on that."


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.



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