Warren County Supervisors to vote for second attempt at RAISE grant for port

Published 4:13 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Warren County Board of Supervisors spoke with Pablo Diaz, President and CEO of the Vicksburg-Warren Partnership, on Monday regarding a second attempt at obtaining a $25 million grant for the new South Port complex.

The grant is available through the $1.5 billion Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, discretionary grant program administered through the U.S. Department of Transportation. The grants are reimbursement grants, meaning the grant recipient pays for the work and is reimbursed by the grant.

During a discussion with the board, Diaz explained some of the parameters for the RAISE grant changed since the last award cycle — namely, a 30-percent match is no longer required.

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“What we discovered kind of last-minute is that they changed the way they look at demographics, income and everything related to the grant, and Warren County doesn’t have to provide a match for the city this year if they don’t want to,” Diaz said. “We’ll do a city and county application this year, again asking for $25 million, but this time without asking for a match. The only money asked in the resolutions is that the city and county share the costs of the preparation of the application, which is $40,000, so the county would pay $20,000 and the city would pay $20,000 to cover those costs.”

The Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted on April 4 to authorize the preparation of the grant application. Neel-Schaffer Engineers was hired to assist with the application at a rate not to exceed $40,000.

In 2021, the port commission applied for $25 million to construct a levee system around the new port site. Based on the feedback received from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Diaz said the focus of the second attempt will be the construction of the new port’s basin.

“When we applied last year, we applied to start the levee. The application this year, we’re working on it, but it’s probable that it’s going to be for the basin, creating the basin and opening the channel rather than the levee,” Diaz said. “We’re basing those determinations on feedback that we got from the federal government that they thought was a weakness for last year, which didn’t get funded, but for which we’re trying to adjust so we can get it approved.”

The request was presented to the Board of Supervisors during its regular meeting on April 4, but the matter was tabled until this Monday’s working session due to a lack of information.

Diaz said the port commission was working with a deadline of April 14, meaning participating entities must vote on the grant prior to that date.

District 4 Supervisor Jeff Holland and District 1 Supervisor Edward Herring openly voiced support for the project, while District 2 Supervisor William Banks voiced his dissent for the project on April 5 and District 3 Supervisor Shawn Jackson voiced her concerns on Monday.

“I do not support it. I was told by another board member that the port was not going to happen, there’s never anything in writing, it always comes last-minute and there is some very questionable stuff associated with it that I don’t think has to be,” Jackson said. “And, there’s the use of media to give wrong information. I do not support it.”

Jackson said her main concern, out of “tons of questions,” was that the new port project is proceeding without an interlocal agreement between Warren County and the city of Vicksburg.

“Do you think something of this magnitude with this amount of money floating around requires an interlocal agreement?” Jackson said to Diaz. “We do have an interlocal agreement with the city for (Riverfront Park).”

Warren County Attorney Blake Teller said an interlocal agreement on the port wasn’t required, as determined by law firm Butler Snow after studying statutes that are applicable for the port project.

Jackson responded that she hadn’t seen any written documentation confirming that an interlocal agreement wasn’t necessary.

“So that’s my point,” Jackson said. “I think a group decided, but it was never put into writing.”

Teller responded that Butler Snow presented such documentation as part of a “manual” the firm had assembled explaining the way the legal process for the port project works.

“There’s a lot of nonsense in this stuff,” Jackson said. “Was it ever disclosed to the board as to what the faults were for the last grant application, or was that only shared with some board members?”

Diaz responded that there were two main points of feedback received from the previous RAISE grant application.

“The first one was a little bit of trouble from the reviewers of the grant regarding how the phase 1 element was to be executed,” he said. “They suggested they had some trouble understanding what would be the return investment on phase 1. This is also, our driving intent for us to go for the basin. We’re trying to alleviate that concern.

“The second concern, which was an interesting concern, because we submitted data to that effect, the question was why not do this on the existing port if you have a port already?” Diaz added. “I’m not sure the point that the existing port is full or does not have enough space was clear enough.  We’re making sure that is clear and the site selection process we went through is fully submitted so they can see the variables we’re facing.”

The Board of Supervisors ultimately agreed to pursue the RAISE grant again. Board President Kelle Barfield said she will sign the contract and the board will ratify her signature during its regular meeting on April 18.