Lauderdale: Time flies when you’re having fun

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bill Lauderdale sits in his office behind a desk covered with several piles of books, notebooks and reports and surrounded by pictures and mementos of a career in government spanning almost three decades.

It’s an office that will have a new occupant in January.

Lauderdale, 68, the District 4 supervisor and current president of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, is retiring after six terms in office.

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“We’ve really done pretty good work over the years,” he said, looking back on his career. “We’ve had some fun over the years, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. It’s like any job, when you enjoy what you’re doing, when you like the people you work with, time goes by quickly.

“Being president of the board, you stay busy. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings, but it’s been gratifying. I’ve enjoyed it and I appreciate these guys putting me in there.”

A fourth generation Warren County resident, Lauderdale worked in manufacturing at LeTourneau and Lasko in Warren County before deciding to run for supervisor in 1988. Several things led to his decision.

“I had to call a supervisor when I was working for Lasko, and asked him some questions about fixing something, and he couldn’t give me a good answer,” he said. “I started looking at it more, and my dad encouraged me and a couple of other people encouraged me to do it, and I went in basically with one suit and a desire to win. I ran against an incumbent and beat him. He was a really nice guy.”

In 2003, Lauderdale learned how the incumbent he defeated in 1988 felt, when he was defeated by a newcomer.

“That wasn’t fun, but that’s a part of it, too,” he said. “You run enough races, you’re going to get beat.”

He spent the intervening four years as a special agent for the Mississippi Department of Revenue, which he said “turned out to be a real good, interesting job. I’m glad I got some good experience working with people. It helped me with these two terms I’m finishing up.”

He said he decided to return to his seat on the board at the request of residents in the district.

“They asked me to run again. They didn’t like me, but they liked him (the man who beat him) less than me.”

Lauderdale’s first term came when county government was changing in Mississippi, and the catalyst was Ray Mabus, who was state auditor at the time and cracking down on state code violations by county supervisors and pushing a move to the unit system of government, where the tax money is put in one account for the benefit of the county, instead of being distributed to each supervisor to use in their district or beat.

“Back then, it was kind of accepted by people because they got their roads graveled and their driveways graveled. (The supervisors) didn’t realize it was illegal for them to do it.”

When he took office for his first term, Lauderdale said, he didn’t realize how much was involved with being a supervisor.

“You had to use some common sense, but it was all about following the state laws, and sometimes they didn’t use common sense,” he said.

“That was kind of difficult to do. You want to try to do something, but it takes three votes to get something done, so you’ve got to be able to work with other people.”

Warren County had just adopted the unit system of government, when Lauderdale took office, joining Robert Walker, who would later be a two-term mayor of Vicksburg, and John Ferguson, who is now on the Warren County Port Commission.

The county, he said, “Always did have one maintenance facility, and it was horrible.

“It had more equipment inside broken down with parts stolen off them, than we had out in the county working.

“One of the first things we did was find how to rustle up some money. We did some trading with the National Park Service because the old facility was right across the street from our welcome center, which is across the street from the (Vicksburg National Military) park.

“We did a lot of things to get more accountability and put the money where it needed to be, and we were able to get better equipment and start putting more equipment on the road where it was needed. We built a shop on U.S. 61 North and expanded on it as we needed it,” he said.

Besides his duties with the board, Lauderdale was involved with preaching the gospel of the unit system. Mabus appointed him chairman of his unit system task force, which was used to convince boards of supervisors to move from the beat to the unit system.

“I had to go hold meetings and hearings around the state, and I was worried if I was going to get out alive from some of those meetings,” he said. “This guy (Mabus) had put people in jail. A lot of people thought they were doing right — they filled their (residents’) cisterns, they would take county equipment and do their driveways, bury their livestock for them if they had a dead cow. It was things that, unless you knew the law, you thought they were doing some good, but what they were doing was illegal.”

The unit system, Lauderdale said, put more emphasis on the roads and the condition of the roads and had the supervisors as a body looking at the county as a whole on the roads and not just politics — one district having more money than the other.

“Before I took office, they were allocating road money — they were dividing it up into fifths (per supervisor). We had some areas in Warren County where the roads were deplorable, but it was because it was one of the districts that had more road miles.”

Also, he said, the school board then didn’t have a cap on how much tax revenue they could request, and the taxes were being raised every year by the school board.

“People were thinking the supervisors were raising the taxes. It was a big education; we started handing out these pie charts (on the budget) that showed where your tax dollar was going, so people would understand here’s where your money’s going. To this day, still, there’s a lot of folks who don’t realize how much money’s going into the budget.”

Serving as a supervisor now is easier, he said, because through experience he’s learned what the law allows boards to do.

“I got a lot more calls about roads then, because they (residents) had been used to a supervisor coming out with a crew and doing stuff,” he said.

“There has been plenty of change, especially with the road conditions,” Lauderdale said, adding county residents have since forgotten the problems in the late 1980s.

“We had Johnson grass so high on the side of the roads, you could hide a giraffe, because the grass was so high,” he said. “People take it for granted now, because we have the roads in such good shape. We initiated a spray and herbicide program that works well and keeps those rights of way as clear as you can.”

Lauderdale also became active in service organizations like the United Way of West Central Mississippi, the Salvation Army and the CAP Center to try and get a better feel for the community.

When he was growing up, he said, “I didn’t know about mental illness, and I didn’t know about all these people who go to jail. I found out real quickly when I got elected we’ve got some bad folks that you’ve got to take care of and some mentally ill people you’ve got to take care of, and there wasn’t a place for at the time.

“We were putting mentally ill people in jail, when all they needed was medication,” he said. “We built a mental health facility by governmental services complex. It was one of the best things we could have done. Also, a children’s shelter was established.”

The children’s shelter, he said, was developed to provide a place for children when their parents were arrested.

“We were putting children in jail. When we picked up a mother or father who were beating their kids, or whatever, and took them to jail, if their children had no other family to take them, we had to put them in a cell. There wasn’t any place else to keep them.”

The board partnered with Mississippi Children’s services and put up money to build a children’s shelter.

“We raised taxes to do that. That was before gaming, but we felt so strongly about keeping innocent children out of jail.”

Lauderdale said no specific accomplishment has marked his career.

“It’s been an accumulation of things — mental health, getting our roads in good shape, having a good balanced budget,” he said. “I’ve gotten to work with different governors over the years, and had the opportunity to go over the country serving on different committees for National Association of Counties.

“It’s all been rewarding to me just trying to solve some of the problems that we’re facing and work with these other elected officials and staff to get things done. It’s been nice.”

The hardest part is campaigning.

People, he said, don’t realize what the majority of elected officials running for office go through.

“A regular job, you go, you put in your application and you get interviews and see what the job’s like, people look at you, and everything clicks and you’ve got the job,” he said. “In government, you’re going out asking people — you’re begging people — to vote for you.

“You want them to vote for you because you think you’re better than anybody else that’s running. There’s a lot of people who don’t care to see you; don’t want you coming around. I’ve been chased by dogs, but never bitten. Once a German shepherd bumped me on the leg.

“There’s a lot of people who’ll tell you if you don’t come by to see them, they won’t vote for you. “They want you to come around and see them. It’s catch-22 deal.”

Returning to office in 2007, he said was easier.

“I think I learned to deal with a whole different group of people when working for the state tax commission,” he said. “It was a good experience. I actually found out if you didn’t do your job, people noticed it, and they would not put you back. If you want to stay in this job, you best be working. I did a lot more fishing in that last term when I got beat.”

One thing different was the addition of gambling revenue to the county, Lauderdale said, adding the gambling revenue was never put in the county’s general fund.

“We kept it separate and tried to put the majority of it on one-time expenses,” he said. “It wasn’t guaranteed like our property tax was, so if it went away, we wouldn’t have to raise taxes. We tried to put it in paving roads.”

Looking ahead to his leaving the board, Lauderdale said he’s not going to make plans but hopes to be able to do some duck hunting in January.

He and his wife Ada would also like to do some travelling, something they haven’t been able to do while he was in office.

But when election time rolls around in 2019, will he get the bug again?

“Never say never. I’ve learned that.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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