Cooperation key in development projects

By By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
Dec. 1, 2003
Nick Walters is state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development. He was appointed to the position by the president in 2001.
USDA's Office of Rural Development assists residents of rural Mississippi with a range of programs to provide affordable housing, water system upgrades and economic development.
The agency also awards grants and issues loans to local governments and non-profit organizations for police and fire protection, health clinics, libraries and other public projects.
Walters met with The Meridian Star's editorial board to discuss the role of his agency.
The Meridian Star: Tell us about some of the projects that you are working on.
Nick Walters: One thing that we're working on right now is a Community Development Coordination Council. The idea behind it is, what if we all got together on the front end of a project? What we're trying to do is come in together and find a project that is going to benefit everyone in the community, and bring everyone together on the front end of the planning stages.
We pitched this idea to the planning and development districts and they thought it was a good idea. So we have decided to do a pilot project in each of the 10 planning and development districts just to see if they could do this.
East Central Planning and Development District could be one of the first to benefit from the project. We're doing one right now in Lawrence County for the Southwest Planning and Development District. They are going to do a sewer district.
We met in Newton County with their folks and kicked around some ideas and asked them if they wanted to participate in the pilot program. They said, "Sure."
They won't get any extra money, they still have to go through all of the processes of applying for our money or any additional money. But the concept is, what if you had us all working together on the front end?
It's a new model, it's a new way of business and it just makes sense. It's not so unique, but nobody does it.
Everybody waits until the last minute and says, "Oh my goodness, we need grant money for this project to finish. Can you help us?" And then we run around and try to get it. How much would it help if we had known about the project nine months or a year ahead of time?
So we're going to have a summit meeting in Newton County in the near future and then we're going to do a pilot project that way in Newton County. And I think what we'll do is try to make sure that each of the three industrial parks in the county are up and running and operational with infrastructure. It may be water and sewer, it may be guttering and lighting, it may be a building. Who knows?
We're going to start that process probably by the first of the year.
The Star: How much money does Congress appropriate for rural development in Mississippi each year?
Walters: We get an allocation each year of somewhere in the neighborhood of about $130 million. That's for all of our programs housing, rural water systems, rural businesses, community facilities and everything else.
Then, there's something called a pool of money because other states don't spend all of their money. After a certain date, if they don't use it, they kick that money back into this pool and we're able to dip into that pool. We will end up spending probably close to another $95-$100,000 in pool money.
The Star: Why would other states not use all of their money?
Walters: For whatever reason, their agencies are not that active. And fortunately for us, I have figured out a way to work that pool for our folks. Having the congressional delegation that we have in Washington also helps us to get the money from that pool.
Some states are just not very aggressive at getting out and letting people know that this is even possible. We've tried to get the word out to our folks that, "Hey, we're here. This is an agency that you may want to use."
The Star: Where do you see the future of water associations in this state? Do see us having more in the future or will there be an effort to consolidate?
Walters: First off, there are too many water associations in the state. We have 750 water associations. I'm not talking about water systems, I'm talking associations.
You kick into that another 280 municipal systems that we can finance any municipality under 10,000 residents we can finance their water systems it's just too cotton-picking many of them.
Some counties have done what I consider to be wise, which is consolidate all of their smaller systems into one county-wide water district. They've done that in Copiah County, Tunica County and others.
We are trying to get a demonstration project going in this state to encourage water associations to merge. The Mississippi Rural Water Association, which is the association of these associations, is for the first time encouraging the idea of merging.