COUNTY YEAR IN REVIEW: Supervisors make decisions on county jail site, other issues

Published 7:00 pm Monday, December 31, 2018

Progress in economic development, a decision on the location of a new jail and a tax increase to residents highlights 2018 for Warren County. Here are some of the major events from the county that happened in the past year.

County jail

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It was a nearly year-long process as the Warren County Board of Supervisors initially decided on a site in the Ceres Industrial Complex in late 2017, but by January, other local and state officials had come out against that plan believing a jail facility at Ceres would hinder economic development.

By state law, the county has the authority to build a jail, but must have the approval of the county seat if it is located outside the city limits in order to get local and private legislation from the Mississippi Legislature.

City and county officials eventually agreed on the inter-local agreement for the jail site and in June, the supervisors purchased the 47-acre site on U.S. 80 for $400,000.

The 350-bed facility is expected to paid through a bond issue in the range of $18-20 million. Board of Supervisors President Richard George told a gathering of the monthly chamber of commerce luncheon in August the bond issue would be “sometime in 2020 or 2021.”

Tax increase

The county’s operating budget increased for the 2019 fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but a millage increase of 3.79 mills means residents will pay more in ad valorem taxes on their home, automobile tag, utilities, business fixtures and equipment, and rental real property.

The 3.79 millage increase is due to the request from the Vicksburg Warren School District for its debt service needs on the draw of $35 million from the $83 million general obligation bond county voters approved in March for facilities upgrades.

“This is a debt of the Vicksburg Warren School District and not the county,” County Administrator John Smith said. “By law, the board of supervisors set the necessary millage rate to raise the needed funds for the school district. Because of this debt, the supervisors must raise the millage to meet the demands of the school board.”

This will equate to a $37.90 increase in taxes on a $100,000 home.

George said it’s unfortunate, but necessary for the millage rate to increase.

“The unfortunate side of needing to make improvements to facilities costs the taxpayers to have those improvements,” George said. “Business has just not caught up to our need for improvement at this time and that results in a tax increase. Hopefully the investment in education and industrial economic development will offset it at some point. That’s our hope.”

Strategic Plan

After months of gathering information and creating a strategic plan for economic development, the final product was unveiled in June.

Pablo Diaz, chamber executive director and the county’s economic development director, said after the June presentation the plan provides the outline to educate the county’s residents about themselves and prepare them to move forward with selling the Vicksburg/Warren County story outside the county’s boundaries.

“This time, we’re going to take our message to the world; we’re going to tell the world who we are, and we’re going to change those wrong perceptions that they have about Vicksburg,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are perfect, but we’re going to tell them who we are.”

The plan developed by VisionFirst Advisors of Tallahassee, Florida, breaks down into initiatives, each with goals to improve the area and make it more productive and attractive to outside business.

Inside the plan is an emphasis of not only building the area’s image, but an emphasis on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship and technology centered around the redevelopment of the Vicksburg Hardware building project, which is seen as a technical and innovation center for the area.

The plan also includes recommendations to work toward retaining and encouraging expansion of existing business and industry, upgrading the area’s economic development product, addressing employers’ workforce needs and concerns, and reimagining the area to better take advantage of the area’s creative assets and resources.

Old Vicksburg Bridge

After hearing from supporters of opening the section of the Old Mississippi River Bridge to pedestrians and bicyclists, in particular Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge group, the Warren County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in June “asking the bridge commission to take such action as it deems reasonable and appropriate to open the 18-foot wide roadway for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on a daily basis.”

Currently, the Kansas City Railroad leases a portion of the bridge, which has not been open to vehicle traffic in decades. However, the 18-foot wide area that once allowed vehicle traffic is used for special events for pedestrians and bicyclists. KCR officials have made it clear over the years they are not in favor of opening the bridge to regular pedestrian and bicycle traffic citing safety concerns.

Lawyers for the Warren County Board of Supervisors and the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, who sought an official opinion from the AG’s office regarding the commission’s legal authority to reopen the bridge to the public for the purpose of pedestrian and bicycle traffic and to expend its funds to pursuing the reopening of the bridge for such purposes, received an AG letter Aug. 10 stating the commission does have the legal authority.

The AG letter cites Section 65-25-53 of the Mississippi Code, which charges the Vicksburg Bridge Commission with “managing and controlling the affairs of the bridge.”

County Parks & Rec/Clear Creek Golf Course

After months of wrangling to get the County Parks and Recreation Department financially stable, the Board of Supervisors took over financial control of the department late in the year and put it back in the black.

Beginning Jan. 1, the county will take over the payroll responsibilities of parks and recreation.

On the flip side, officials are still concerned regarding the 16th section land lease where Clear Creek Golf Course is located. The county owns the golf course and the lease is due in March. An appraisal has been completed on the property.

“The law calls for five percent of the appraised value, so we’re looking at a $68,000 and some change lease under the present conditions, unless the state legislature intervenes and changes it for public entities that are using public property,” Smith said. The current lease is right around $8,000.

State Sen. Briggs Hopson said there might be some other options. He has been in discussion with the Secretary of State’s office and hopes to have more information for the supervisors in January.

“I think there’s a general consensus between the school board and this board that would like to work towards a solution that is reasonable,” Hopson said.

Funding E911

The county and city disagreed on how to fund E911.

In October, the Warren County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement at the recommendation of the E911 Commission that will give Shane Garrard, Warren County’s E911 Director, leeway in personnel while remaining within his budget.

The previous agreement limited the E911 director to 17 full-time and four part-time employees.

By statute, the county provides 911 services to citizens, which includes those citizens within the municipality of Vicksburg. As a result, the interlocal agreement exists in regard to funding E911 because the surcharge on phone bills is not enough to cover the costs of providing E911 service. The city currently pays 60 percent of the cost and the county provides 40 percent, as well as the facility that houses E911 and the command center.

City officials wanted to have a dollar amount of $564,000 associated with the cost to fund E911.