2010 Year in Review Tight budgets top of the news

Published 12:08 pm Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The top local news for Vicksburg during 2010 continued to be that local governments did not have the money to fund the needs and wishes lists, but it became a game of building blocks — take one down and put one up.

The proposed construction of a replacement for the county’s aging jail was put on the back burner because of money and, after nearly two years of waiting, construction began on replacing the bridge that crosses over Kansas City Railway tracks on Washington Street, one of the city’s main north-south thoroughfares.

A light spot of news that carried great weight in the pride department came in the last two weeks of the year as a Vicksburg resident, Patrick House, brought attention to himself, the fight against obesity and the city by losing the most weight in the year’s season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

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House, 28, weighed 400 pounds when he began the show in early June, but by showdown day, Dec. 14, he had lost 181 pounds.

After three months of grueling workouts at the Biggest Loser Ranch in California, House returned in September to Vicksburg, where he continued to push himself, spending hours in the gym several times a week.

As the winner, he received $250,000 and a job offer, which he has accepted, at Mindstream Academy in Bluffton, S.C., a boarding school for overweight teens who want to get healthy.

Another bright spot in the U.S. fight against obesity also came from Vicksburg.

Linda Fondren, the owner of a local gym and organizer of a monthly walk for exercise, was picked as one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes for her efforts to slim down the community.

Price of progress

is threat to water

As U.S. Army Corps of Engineers efforts continued toward an interpretive museum on the MV Mississippi IV, drydocked at Jackson and Washington streets, crews found that construction and heavy rainfall were threatening the stability of a 36-inch main water line 3 feet below Washington Street.

With several cracks as wide as 6 inches and as long as five parking spaces, the Board of Mayor and Alderman declared an emergency, and the Corps agreed to pay $1.36 million to reroute the water line around the shift via Main, Walnut and Jackson streets.

In September, the city secured federal funds through an infrastructure program to install a second main to supply the city with water should the main be compromised.

The city received $2,453,654 and matched it with $841,821, taken from charges from its water service.

Jackson engineering firm IMS Engineers was hired in November, with a 2-1 vote, for the design of the second water main. Mayor Paul Winfield and North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield voted to hire the new firm over Allen & Hoshall, the engineering firm in Jackson that has been contracted for engineering services to the city for 20 years.

Winfield cited the opportunity to welcome new businesses to the city, while South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman expressed apprehension for changing firms. The city has about 10,000 water customers, but the water main serves about 45,000 when outlying water districts are factored in.

Progress is real

for Levee Depot

A redevelopment project of the 103-year-old Levee Street Depot got the go-ahead in October after the City of Vicksburg agreed to front the $1.56 million to get construction going.

Groundbreaking had been stalled twice because of the withholding of the $1.9 million federal stimulus award by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. MDOT said it would not release any of the funds until city audits for 2008 and 2009 were complete.

Audits for 2006-08 were not complete when Winfield took office in July 2009. Since, the 2006 and ’07 audits have been completed and Winfield expects the 2008 and 2009 to be completed in the new year. Greenwood contractor Kenneth R. Thompson Jr. Builder was awarded the contract for renovations. The depot will house a transportation museum on the ground floor and office spaces on the second floor for the Vicksburg Main Street Program and the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In January, Mayfield and Beauman, in a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen chaired by Mayfield in Winfield’s absence, voted to demolish 40 dilapidated houses in the city, ending a months-long moratorium Winfield had initiated, in part to follow-up his campaign pledge to reduce demolitions in the city.

Buildings and Inspections Director Victor Gray-Lewis asked for and received the board’s permission to demolish 40 structures. Most were vacant or housing vagrants, they said.

Independent audits conducted on the NRoute public transportation system for 2008 and ’09 revealed “clean” audits for the financially struggling transit system. The audits were required by the City of Vicksburg before it would release any of its $135,000 annual allocation. However, in October, the city board, in the absence of Beauman, voted to give NRoute its first monthly installment of the allocation in order for the agency to meet that month’s payroll.

Pay raises stopped,

started for city

After the March 1 city board meeting, Winfield announced plans to more closely scrutinize pay increases for the city’s 500 employees. “I don’t anticipate any raises anytime soon — for anybody,” Winfield said.

A freeze on pay increases followed a Jan. 29 memo from the mayor’s office informing all department heads to cut unnecessary spending, put off all capital purchases and limit travel outside the city to training events.

The city budgeted $31.5 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, with gaming and sales taxes rebates making up nearly half the city’s revenue.

After the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, Winfield, Mayfield and Beauman voted themselves 5 percent raises and 3 percent pay hikes for all city employees except those covered by civil service, such as fire and police personnel. City Accountant Doug Whittington said the raises will cost about $312,302.18, an amount taken from leftover funds from various departments. The raise was the first since 2001.

Following the announcement of raises, local officials said they wanted to streamline city operations.

Winfield faced

financial troubles

Financial problems beset Vicksburg’s mayor as 2010 began.

Advanced Recovery Systems Inc. said Winfield owed $3,557.34 for a hospital bill, plus attorneys fees of $1,185, court costs and interest. Advanced Recovery Systems bought the debt from St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital in June 2009. Initially, Winfield’s city wages were garnished to pay the bill. He said the St. Dominic accusations stemmed from his insurer’s refusal to pay charges he incurred after a visit to the hospital on July 5, 2006.

Separately, Superior Oil & Supply, a company in which Winfield was a partner, was sued for an outstanding debt. Superior failed to pay $5,439.07 for products ordered from Dutch Lubricants LLC from September 2008 to February 2009, according to a suit filed by Dutch in December 2009 in Warren County Circuit Court. In the suit, Dutch claims Winfield wrote the company a bad check for the amount owed in April 2009. Winfield denied the claims.

Failed bridge project

nears end of tunnel

Local officials went to Washington, D.C., in February looking for financial help with the Washington Street bridge replacement project that stalled in 2009 when the $5 million the City of Vicksburg had set aside for the work ran headlong into an $8.6 million price tag.

On the trip were Winfield, Warren County Port Commission Executive Director Wayne Mansfield and District 1 County Supervisor David McDonald.

The project received federal funding in March, and the city board rededicated $3.7 million in bond funds earmarked for paving projects in the North Ward and development of a sports complex on Fisher Ferry Road to the project. Construction of a roadway-topped rail tunnel was to be complete by April.

An $8.6 million contract was inked with Kanza Construction of Tokepa, Kan., for the project.

Warren County

and the new jail

A 16-month study about Warren County’s needs for a jail was wrapped up in April, but, citing budget constraints, supervisors bumped it to the back of the table.

The study by Colorado-based consultant Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services found a jail could be on 20 to 50 acres and expand beyond 350 beds.

Cost projections have settled between $20 million and $30 million and a millage rate increase of at least 2 mills to generate the money. Space in the current 128-bed jail consistently is maxed out. The oldest parts of the current jail date to 1905.

Meetings of local elected officials and judicial system personnel ended the year without consensus on revamping indigent defense and adding staff to manage the population in the current jail. Both were recommended in the jail study.

Little public discussion took place on possible locations. Property has been vetted inside Vicksburg and outside.

Warren County’s $14.8 million budget, while ignoring the jail, resulted in unchanged property tax rates for 2010-11 and a balanced budget. Cuts hit all departments and pay raises not tied to promotions were nixed in the process.

Routine road improvements were set to ramp up this fiscal year, mainly due to money carried over from two years of inactivity.

A pair of year long court challenges filed by two Vicksburg casinos over their respective land values and property taxes owed for 2009 were settled in 2010.

Riverwalk’s property was valued at $50.4 million, about 35 percent less than originally calculated. A $3.3 million tax bill was the settlement on Ameristar’s various gaming-related and unrelated parcels in Vicksburg, about midway between original calculations and what the casino paid before renovations in 2008.

Price out of school,

Swinford steps in

After seven years at the helm of the Vicksburg Warren School District, Superintendent Dr. James Price retired June 30 after 19 years with the district.

On Aug. 23, Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford became the public school district’s sixth superintendent. Swinford came to Vicksburg from the East Baton Rouge Parish.

Entering 2011, the VWSD board will seat two new members. Bryan Pratt ousted Jerry Boland in November. Sally Bullard ran unopposed for the seat of retiring board member Tommy Shelton.

While the district remained at an At Risk of Failing level, improved student test scores and school ratings were recorded in the public schools in 2010.

Nearly 30 percent more students in the district passed the algebra test this year than last year, 71.5 vs. 42.1, though the district lagged behind the state’s average of 79.6 percent passing. On the MCT2 tests of elementary students, 47 percent scored proficient and above in math, compared to 32 percent last year, and 74 percent scored basic or above, an increase of 8 points over 2009.

Good news was not limited to the public schools.

Students at St. Aloysius High School and Porters Chapel Academy outscored state averages in their 2010 ACT scores in math, English, reading and science.

In October, Vicksburg Catholic School celebrated 150 years of Catholic education in Vicksburg with a weekend of special events honoring its founding by the religious Sisters of Mercy in 1860. Thousands of alumni attended.

PCA ended 2010 on a negative note when part-time assistant football and basketball coach Derrick Collins was accused of robbing a bank.

The economy was cited as a force behind surging enrollments at Hinds Community College, which recorded a 25 percent increase over 2009.

Housing Authority

report card improves

The Vicksburg Housing Authority got its “troubled status” designation lifted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in August for a temporary dip in reserve funds in the fall of 2005 after the roofs of 279 VHA homes and apartments were repaired following Hurricane Katrina.

The housing authority was required to submit a detailed improvement plan to HUD and update it monthly and to get HUD approval for its annual budget, as well as routine payment requests and expenditures.

Anniversaries, deaths

and other milestones

Vicksburg and Warren County celebrated anniversaries and other milestones during 2010.

• Monsignor Patrick Farrell, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church, marked 50 years in the priesthood, and the Rev. P.J. Curley, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church, marked 40.

• Vicksburg Y’s Warner-Tully camp turned 50 in 2010.

• Rocky Springs United Methodist Church, along the Natchez Trace Parkway, held its final homecoming in April. The nonprofit Friends of Rocky Springs Church was formed to maintain the church and keep it open for weddings, nondenominational worship services and visits from pilgrims.

• River Region Medical Center announced this month that a new chief executive officer, Belzoni native Doug Sills, had been named to replace the departing Vance Reynolds.

• Notable deaths in 2010 included the Rev. Bill Watkins, one of the founders of Good Shepherd Community Center, who died May 23 at the age of 82; Warren County deputy David Lambert, 38, whose death July 20 came as a result of injuries he suffered while on duty in an early morning wreck June 24 on U.S. 61 North near Oak Ridge Road; and Dorothy Graham Butts, a pacesetter among men and women farmers in Warren County for more than 30 years, who died at 91 on June 20.

• The Vicksburg National Military Park unveiled a new visitors center documentary. On May 8, a monument to Kentucky Confederate veterans who fought in Vicksburg was dedicated. Ground stabilization at the Mint Springs bluff was completed, and restoration and refurbishment of the Shirley House, the park’s only standing Civil War-era structure, is on pace to be completed in the spring.

The National Park Service’s Southeast Region presented the park with the 2009 Keeper of the Light Award for Interpretive and Educational Excellence in April. In December, the U.S. Mint announced that the Cairo, the restored Union ironclad gunboat on display at the park, will be featured on a quarter in 2011.

Local businesses

see shuffle

Pemberton Square mall was sold and renamed Vicksburg Mall in 2010, and Houston-based Weiner Development pledged to revive the shopping center’s image.

Vicksburg casinos struggled through another tough year. Revenue-based taxes paid by the five gaming houses to local government and public schools dipped by 4.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1.

Isle of Capri, which built and operated Vicksburg’s first casino in 1993, bought Rainbow Casino on Warrenton Road for $76.2 million in a deal wrapped up in June.

In early December, Tropicana Entertainment announced a sale of Horizon Casino is in the works to a South Carolina gaming systems vendor for $3.25 million. The sale is pending state OK.

Also in December, executives for Ameristar, the area’s biggest casino, reversed course on plans to explore a sale of its assets as a way to boost profitability.

In other business news, Warren County Port Commission officials extended a deal with Kinder Morgan Bulk Terminals to operate the harbor facilities through 2011. Armstrong Flooring returned to the port this year after departing in 2009.

At Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex, the building formerly occupied by Yorozu Automotive was purchased by local developer Pete Buford. The Ceres Plantation House dominated commissioners’ attention during the year, as an eight-month odyssey to protect the house from demolition by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was abandoned in October when the agency said the Civil War-era house didn’t qualify.

Five people die

in fire, wrecks

Four fatal wrecks and a fatal fire were recorded in Warren County in 2010.

• David Lambert, 38, a Warren County deputy, died almost a month after he was involved in a wreck on duty on U.S. 61 North near Oak Ridge Road on June 24.

• Brelyn Shirnita Gross, 24, died Aug. 10 in a one-car accident on U.S. 61 South.

• The next day, Florence Amborn, 90, was involved in a wreck in the 1900 block of Mission 66 while turning into a driveway. She was taken to University Medical Center in Jackson, where she died four days later.

• Alvin Dewayne Tilley, 21, died Aug. 21, after losing control of his car while driving on U.S. 61 South.

• A house fire on Coccaro’s Alley in Marcus Bottom on Jan. 11 killed 83-year-old Elsie Scott, who lived alone.

Three homicides,

two in self-defense

Three deaths in Vicksburg in 2010 were ruled homicides, and Warren County grand juries said two of them, which left Derrick Stamps and Dennis Lewis dead, were in self-defense.

Dominic Rashad Turner, 19, 202 Easy St., was judged to have acted in self-defense Feb. 14 when he shot Stamps, at the Exxon Jubilee at Mission 66 and Clay Street.

Chapiya Richardson, 28, 209 Central Drive, also acted in self-defense, grand jurors said, when she stabbed to death her boyfriend, 31-year-old Dennis Lewis, March 20.

In the third case, on March 8, Jose Arenas was found shot to death below the U.S. 61 South overpass on Interstate 20. Police said Arenas, who was 25, and Jaime Flores, 26, 919 Dallas St. in Houston, Texas, had robbed the La Chiquita, a grocery at 4002 U.S. 61 South, with an SKS assault rifle and a handgun and injured a clerk.

The two drove north on U.S. 61, being chased by the grocery’s owner, until they wrecked near the bridge. The suspects and the store owner then traded gunfire. Arenas was found around 6 the next morning and Flores had not been caught at year’s end.

Suspects set free

in Warren courts

In Warren County courts, a grand jury meeting in January said there was not enough evidence to take Tyler Lee Smith to trial in the death of former Vicksburg police Chief Walter Cole in the Waltersville Estates area on July 23, 2008.

Former Warren Central High basketball star Sha’Kayla Caples, who had been charged in a series of armed robberies of pedestrians in 2009, was given immunity when she agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of two other cases, one a homicide involving her cousin, Gemini Porter.

Porter was one of three teens charged with the March 2009 shooting of Antonio Turner, 25. Pleading guilty to manslaughter June 3, Porter, 17, 2501 Culkin Road; Kersey Young, 18, 1115 Adams Lane; and Roosevelt Dewayne Harris, 18, 1803 First East St., were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Another manslaughter guilty plea was entered by Adam Rader, 28, 103 Cross St., on May 3. Rader admitted shooting 25-year-old Danny Miller on April 12, 2009. Rader was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In his fourth trial since being indicted in two Mississippi counties in January 2008, Highway Safety Patrolman Dane Davenport was found not guilty in March in Warren County Circuit Court of five of nine counts of child sexual abuse..

State Attorney General Jim Hood said Davenport will be tried again on the remaining counts.

Former TV23 Director Thomas “Barry” Graham was placed on five years of probation, fined $1,500 and ordered to pay approximately $30,000 in restitution to the city and state after pleading guilty July 29 to a felony charge of embezzling speakers, amplifiers, microphones, a lighting system and CDs from the city.

In a case District Attorney Ricky Smith called “the worst case of abuse” he had seen in 20 years of practicing law, Bryan Blake Neihaus, 22, 452 Tilton Ranch Road, was sentenced in August to 80 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting a child, sexual battery of a child and possession of child pornography.

Former Warren County deputy and Vicksburg police officer London Williams was convicted of incest. He was given a seven-year sentence.

Also in November, John Graham, 18, 4407 Halls Ferry Road, was convicted of sexual battery of a 4-year-old girl and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

After pleading no contest to child abuse charges for causing injuries to her 3-week-old baby in July 2009, Kristin Walter was sentenced to eight years in prison.

2010 blows in

snow, tornado

Weather in the area during 2010 ran the gamut from cold to hot with a killer tornado thrown in the middle.

On Feb. 12, Vicksburg awoke to 6 and 1/2 inches of snow after an overnight storm blew through central and southern Mississippi. Schools and many offices were closed.

The snowfall was one of about six reported in a two-month period, but, by far, the largest.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, temperatures were so high and rain so scarce that a ban on burning was in place in Warren County and across much of the state in the late summer and into the fall.

On April 24, a tornado with speeds of 130 to 150 mph crossed the Mississippi River into Eagle Lake and destroyed 11 homes on Sea Island Drive, injuring two people.

The tornado’s path began in Madison Parish in Louisiana, where about 50 people were hospitalized for injuries, 20 stationary railroad cars were knocked over and a liquid nitrogen leak was reported at Complex Chemical. The tornado traveled about 140 miles through Mississippi ending in Holmes County and killing 10 people in its path.