Poor economy expected to overshadow lawmaking

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 4, 2009

Locally generated bills will strike familiar chords with lawmakers and constituents, covering an array of topics from crimefighting to charitable donations.

State Sen. Briggs Hopson III and Rep. Alex Monsour, both Republicans, were elected in 2007. Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, enters his 21st year in the state House. The 90-day regular session in Jackson begins Tuesday.

A faltering national economy also will have local governments hedging bets on what they could get out of the Legislature in 2009, as tax collections are expected to drop and spending options become limited.

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“Anybody asking for anything will be mindful of it,” Warren County Board of Supervisors President Richard George said.

County focused on charities

Warren County will offer them a list of nonprofit agencies’ requests for public funds — allowed only by legislative act, but is not expected to approach the $295,000 in renewed spending approved by lawmakers last year. Officials cited the cloud of recession hanging over state revenue estimates.

More than $600,000 was allocated for charitable donations in the county’s budget for 2008-09. Groups specified in the budget include Keep Vicksburg Warren Beautiful, Community Council of Warren County, which delivers meals to the elderly, and Warren Washington Issaquena Sharkey Community Action Agency, which defrays the cost of energy bills for low-income earners.

Sheriff wants radar

Among local law enforcement’s desires was the annually championed, but routinely nixed, allowance of radar equipment by sheriff’s departments to check speeds on non-municipal roads in the state. Multiple bills have been filed in recent sessions allowing some form of speed-checking equipment to be used. Most die in committee.

“This would most impact the safety of the residents of Warren County,” Sheriff Martin Pace said. “We get more complaints about speeding vehicles than about burglary, thefts and domestic violence combined. It’s obviously a concern of the people of Warren County.”

Pace also favors a state sheriff’s association’s push to get the state to pay for housing and feeding probation violators awaiting formal hearings, often a drain on counties because of judicial backlogs.

An effort undertaken by several sheriffs, district attorneys, coroners and others has focused on bringing state funding of medical examiners and crime lab testing, as well as judicial and DA salaries, up to levels more commensurate with the Southeast.

Until his dismissal by the Department of Public Safety in August, private pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne had performed the duties of the state medical examiner — vacant since 1994, with only commitments of extra funding in recent sessions. District 9 District Attorney Ricky Smith said the state should fund the crime lab up to $18 million, with a full-time ME and two part-time assistants.

Boost drug courts, judges say

A desired change in the role of drug courts in Mississippi and a pay raise are prominent with the local judiciary.

“This would be for when they are released from Parchman, they would be released to Drug Court so that they have some supervision and accountability, and to help them get acclimated to society. It would also allow drug offenders to get additional treatment, too,” 9th Circuit Court Judge Frank Vollor said.

Economic realities might preclude a pay raise for the state’s judges, Vollor said, but added “it would be nice.”

Housing inmates a city concern

City officials plan to repeat most of last year’s list of requested bills, as all but one bill filed for Vicksburg last year died in committee.

Notable among them are changes to laws regarding liquor control and tax collection, as well as allowing city prisoners to be held in neighboring parishes in Louisiana while awaiting initial court dates.

Hopson unsuccessfully introduced a bill in 2008 to strip a commercial property’s “resort status” if a business has not operated on the property for more than six months. The city is hoping the senator will be successful in pushing the bill through this year.

Under state law, qualified resort areas are defined as areas commonly accepted as places that attract tourists, vacationers and others because of historical, scenic or recreational facilities or attractions. Resort status must be granted by the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control, part of the state Tax Commission.

Another liquor-related law the city hopes for is modification of regulations on the location of businesses that qualify for retail liquor licenses. ABC law states a business cannot qualify for an on-site consumption permit if it is located within 400 feet of church, school or funeral home. However, businesses located in a commercially zoned area have to be only more than 100 feet from such establishments.

City Attorney Nancy Thomas said the city would like to see the law’s language changed from “commercially zoned” to “permitted areas,” as the city has local ordinances that restrict on-site alcohol consumption in commercially zoned areas.

Also this year, the city is again hoping a measure to contract with Madison and Tensas parishes to hold inmates will be passed. The measure has been unsuccessfully introduced the past several years.

Vicksburg residents charged with misdemeanors are commonly taken to Issaquena, Adams or Leake counties to be held due to a consistent lack of bed space in the Warren County Jail. City officials have said as much as $400,000 could be saved annually if they could be held closer to Vicksburg. A study is underway to determine the size and scope of a new county jail. The planning phase is expected to take a year to complete.

As for tax collections, the city would like to see the rate for collecting taxes at a set rate of 5 percent. Warren County collects taxes from city residents on property, car tag and real estate taxes. State law allows for a county board of supervisors to set collection rates, and Warren County charges the city a flat fee $75,000 a year regardless of how much in taxes is collected.

A change in road and bridge tax assessments for municipalities is also sought by the city. The county collects taxes on roads and bridges and is required to pay a portion back to the city if it does infrastructure work. The city contends its work is not being adequately assessed.

A change in civil service law concerning the political activity will be sought for a second time. The city wants the state regulations to mirror the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants from engaging in political activity. It stems from a federal suit, settled in 2007, concerning the law’s application and involved a former Vicksburg Fire Department lieutenant.


Steve Sanoski and Pamela Hitchins contributed to this story.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com