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Regional officials meet, discuss stimulus package

Officials in the Black Belt know full well they can’t count on money from the stimulus package before it passes Congress.

But the ability to spend money on projects may still prove an obstacle if the bill is approved.

Representatives from the offices of Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. Richard Shelby led an informative meeting at the St. James Hotel on Friday.

Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard believes the meeting served notice on the financial straits of local municipalities.

“If Dallas County got a $5 million award tomorrow that we had to match for 10 or 20 percent, whatever the standards were, we couldn’t take it. And neither could any county that I know of,” said Ballard. “My main driving point to them was make sure there’s no prohibitive matches on it, and I think several of us made that point.”

Government and community leaders from the 10 counties in the Alabama Tombigbee Regional Commission were present, as well as representatives from the Alabama Department of Community Affairs Alabama Department of Transportation and other agencies.

The stimulus package passed in the U.S. House last week and still awaits a vote in the Senate. Wrangling over language of the proposal has increased after an initial figure of more than $800 billion has reached nearly $1 trillion.

Alabama is set for a share of $3 billion over 2½ years.

“I don’t know what would happen if we got the money,” said Mayor George Evans. “At this point there are a lot of unknowns as to how it’s going to be managed. Ideally, the package would be outstanding for all the cities and counties involved. The meeting today didn’t tell us exactly how the money would be distributed to the state and different counties and citied and so forth and so on.”

Because of that uncertainty, several municipalities are making sure projects they present to the state are either ready to begin or already underway.

Pine Hill Mayor Harry Mason said his city has a $1.2 million sewer project he hopes to get federal funds for. The rural Wilcox County town is already reeling from the announced closure of Weyerhaeuser mills there, meaning the loss of 300 jobs.

The Washington-based company builds houses and makes pulp and wood panels from trees.

“That’s a drastic disaster for us,” Mason said. “Them shutting down, it’s going to be devastating … We’re very much concerned about the future because of Weyerhaeuser shutting down. It’s definitely going to be a blow to our economy.”

Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Economic Development Authority, said officials should have a better understanding of what to expect after Friday’s meeting.

“If you wanted to submit projects for your particular county or city, you submitted shovel-ready projects,” Vardaman said. “In other words, projects that the engineering work had been done and that’s ready to go. So if you got the money, you could immediately jump in there and start to work because they want the money to get out in the economy.”

Others preferred not to speculate on proposed projects before the Senate votes.

“Let’s get the bill passed first,” said State Rep. Yusuf Abdus-Salaam.