Vicksburg needs more homeowners, Leyens tells group|[01/08/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Vicksburg needs more home-owners and the city should have an aggressive role, Mayor Laurence Leyens told two staff members and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman Monday in a meeting about the future of homebuyer assistance programs.

He complained that his actions over the past several months have been misunderstood.

“I’m tired of hearing people say that the city is getting out of the housing business,” he said. “It’s quite the opposite. Fact is, it’s probably the No. 1 issue.”

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Last fall, the two veteran administrators of the city’s housing assistance program confirmed they had been told not to expect to have jobs in January and last week Beatrice Moore and Leona Stringer said they were still expecting termination notices.

They have also said they have not been invited to any discussions about homebuyer programs. North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield, who has supported continuing the programs, said he was not invited to Monday’s meeting.

Leyens and Beauman met with City Attorney Nancy Thomas and Lamar Horton, director of human resources, to discuss what Leyens called a new approach to helping people buy homes in Vicksburg — which may involve more direct involvement in construction of homes.

While some of Monday’s session was open, it was closed as a personnel matter when the four said they were going to discuss the planning department employees who have sought and administered grants for homebuyer education and down payment assistance programs.

“I’d like to reposition this department to look at housing development,” Leyens said, stressing the need for more new houses in the city.

“Housing is still the fundamental problem in this community. I think it’s driving retail problems and other shortcomings,” Leyens said, adding that Vicksburg’s comparatively low rate of home ownership hurts the tax base.

Leyens said Monday his questions center on whether certain programs are worth the money the city puts into them. Though much funding for such programs comes from whatever federal, state or nonprofit agency offers the grant, Vicksburg contributes some funds as a partner, and costs to the city are also reflected in the salaries of those employed to chase and administer grants. Depending on how programs are viewed, it can cost the city $300,000 or more to give away $50,000 in the average of 10 grants of $5,000 each of the past 10 years.

Leyens said he would like to see the city partner with another local agency to increase housing outreach efforts. Warren County supervisors have also talked informally about initiating aid programs for prospective homeowners.

The home ownership rate in Warren County is 68 percent and 56 percent inside the city; Mississippi’s home ownership rate is 72 percent, according to data from the planning department.

All three elected city officials did meet to conduct regular business later Monday morning.

Sealed bids were received for a new chlorine system and new pumps that will be installed at the wastewater treatment plant.

A new liquid chlorine cleaning system will replace chlorine gas that is pumped through wastewater to treat it.

The gas, stored in high concentration at the facility on Rifle Range Road, could cause harm and respiratory damage to residents within a three-mile radius if it ever leaked, according to scenarios kept in the facility’s operating plan.

Plant manager Rosemary Bagby said the chlorine gas system is designed with several safety components, including a sensor, alarm and automatic shutoff. But she acknowledged that a leak would pose a risk to those at the plant and in the surrounding area. A scenario map showed four Vicksburg schools within the area where exposure to escaped gas could result in hospitalization. Liquid chlorine is much safer, she said.

“This is a new thing for a plant of our size,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, we can go back to the old way.”

Four companies bid to replace one of two pumps that send effluent water into the Mississippi River, and to build and install pumps for the new liquid chlorine system.

* Greenbriar Construction bid $110,000.

* Southern Electric of Flowood bid $95,169.

* Hemphill Construction of Florence bid $91,300.

* Red Oak of Wesson bid $96,230.

One company, Allied Universal, submitted a bid to sell liquid chlorine to the city at 79.9 cents per gallon.

The company has also agreed to lease and maintain tanks for liquid chlorine to the plant.