May 9, 2014 10:56:08 AM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi Legislature met in a three-hour session Thursday and approved $17 million to help pay for recovery from disasters, including tornadoes that recently pounded the state.
House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said up to $2 million of that would be used for recovery in Lowndes County. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the funding measure, Senate Bill 2001, and it became law immediately.
The governor originally said he would ask lawmakers for up to $20 million. However, officials said $17 million will be enough to cover costs until January, when the Legislature begins is 2015 regular session.
As part of a deadly outbreak across the Midwest and South, 23 tornadoes struck Mississippi last week, killing 14 people and causing at least $13.5 million of damage. Recovery costs could increase as officials continue assessing losses.
Under the bill that Bryant signed, the state will pay local governments' costs for debris removal. The state also will lend money to local governments for other expenses, and the communities will repay the state when they get paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I think those two things are going to get these communities up on their feet again," Bryant said Thursday at the Capitol.
The cities of Louisville, in central Mississippi, and Tupelo, in the northeast, were especially hard hit.
Democratic Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, who lives just outside Tupelo, expressed gratitude to government groups, including the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, for providing quick response to the storms that damaged hundreds of homes and businesses in the state. He said faith-based groups and other charities also have stepped in to help.
"We're Tupelo strong," Holland said.
A city-owned utility, Tupelo Water & Light, has incurred at least $5.5 million in damage, said Mayor Jason Shelton, who was at the Capitol with several City Council members. He said the city would have to pay 12.5 percent but wasn't sure what the overall cost would be.
At least 300 buildings were destroyed in Winston County, which has a population of about 19,000. In the county seat of Louisville, the hospital was heavily damaged and patients were evacuated.
In disaster recovery projects, the state government typically is pays about 12.5 percent of the cost and the local government pays 12.5 percent, with the federal government paying 75 percent. The federal government pays the full cost of recovery aid to households.
Smith said the $17 million should be sufficient to cover the state and local share.
"We were prudent enough to have a little bit of a cushion," Smith said.
Mississippi government has more than $400 million in cash reserves. The $17 million is coming from a car-tag reduction fund. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eugene "Buck" Clarke, R-Hollandale, said the car-tag fund had a $27 million surplus, and taking $17 million of that will not cause the price of license plates to increase.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is still working on recovery from 13 previous disasters, and Clarke said some of the $17 million could be spent on those, if needed.
Dispatch reporter Nathan Gregory contributed to this report.
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