Misinformation blamed in some erasures|[11/19/06]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 19, 2006

At least five signers of a petition opposing a proposed city bond issue have removed their names, and three have said they were misled.

The three who said they signed the petition after being told they were in danger of having their homes bought or required to be remodeled.

They told their stories Friday, the most recent day city officials worked to verify names on the petition. It had been submitted two weeks earlier by officials of the Vicksburg NAACP.

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If verified, the petition will force a referendum on a proposed $16.9 million bond issue. Of that amount, $570,000 is to be spent in an urban-renewal area the city has also proposed.

To force the referendum 1,500 valid signatures are required. The petition as submitted had about 2,040 signatures, organizers of the drive to obtain them said.

Herman Schultz, who said he built the home he and his wife live in in the 3500 block of Oak Street, said he didn’t know the people who came to his home and asked them to sign the petition.

&#8220They told us that they were going to buy up a lot of houses and the ones left were going to have to be brought up to certain specifications,” Schultz said. &#8220The ones that didn’t they were going to tear them down.”

After the petition was delivered, on Nov. 3, Mayor Laurence Leyens said many of those who signed it had been deliberately misinformed about the city government’s plans and that those who had signed it based on misinformation could have their names removed. Leyens’ comments were broadcast on the city’s cable-television channel, River City 23, and Schultz said that’s how he learned he had been misled.

The Schultzes and their neighbor Dorothy Thorne, 3512 Oak St., asked Thursday that their names be removed from the petition, Herman Schultz and Thorne said.

Earlier in the week, staff of the city clerk’s office said at least two other signers had also asked that their names be removed from the petition. Those two people were not identified.

The proposed urban-renewal area is south of downtown and includes the buildings and homes on both sides of Washington Street and from there west to the Mississippi River and Yazoo Diversion Canal.

Among the goals of the urban-renewal plan the city government has proposed are for the neighborhood to be redeveloped or rehabilitated. The city’s board of mayor and aldermen has said it expects practically all that work to be done by the private sector.

The city does, however, plan to put about $570,000 of the proposed bond proceeds into the project for street-repaving and additions or upgrades to sidewalks, lighting, drainage and landscaping. That amount is part of a $7.8 million total the bond issue would raise for street-paving citywide. Also to be financed through the bond proceeds would be a $4.1 million first phase of a recreation complex off Fisher Ferry Road and a $5 million replacement of the Washington Street rail overpass at Clark Street. Federal funds have been secured to reimburse the city government for the overpass-replacement project.

A sample of pages from the petition shows that each says at its top and bottom, &#8220Petitioners against a bond for Oak and Washington streets and a softball complex; Request a referendum or popular vote.”

The bottom of each page also says, &#8220Please join the citizens of Vicksburg to stop the unfair disbursing of city tax revenue to the tourism industry resulting in higher fees and taxes. Industries are supposed to make life easier or more affordable for the citizens of Vicksburg.”

Two other signers of the petition who live in another part of the urban-renewal area were asked why they signed it, and fear seems to be at the root.

Solomon Kennedy, an 88-year-old World War II veteran of the U.S. Army, simply said, &#8220I don’t want anybody trying to take this place.”

The urban-renewal plan identified 540 structures in the proposed area, including 149 it says are &#8220substandard.” Of those 123 are homes or apartments, including at least 14 vacant or abandoned structures, and 25 are commercial, including at least 10 that are vacant or abandoned, the plan shows.

If the plan is adopted the city inspection department would inspect them to identify any code violations, city planner Wayne Mansfield said.

&#8220All property owners will be given the opportunity to work with the city to make the necessary improvements,” Mansfield said. &#8220It is our intention to work with the property owners to the best of our ability. If this is not accomplished voluntarily, according to the plan, the city will take the necessary actions needed to bring the property into conformance.”

The plan calls for two of the 25 commercial structures, a car wash at the intersection of Belmont and Washington streets and a pink beauty salon on Oak Street, to be acquired by the city from its general fund.

Ruddie Kaiser, a 15-year resident of Pearl Street who is disabled and said her husband had lived in the same home for 30 years, questioned whether the city government should need to borrow to do the street-paving it has proposed from the bond issue.

&#8220It’s nothing personal against anybody,” Kaiser said. &#8220It’s just that some improvements should automatically be done anyway.”

Thorne, who operates a beauty salon from part of her home, said she has lived in her home for about 60 years. She said her street and Drummond Street used to be &#8220the best part of town.”

She said she asked to have her name removed from the petition because she didn’t think those who requested her signature on it had sufficiently explained the situation.

&#8220I’m all for improvement,” Thorne said. &#8220I’d love for it to look good down here because I plan to stay here.”