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City leaders show support for new shelter, but contract still a long way off

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen made one thing clear at Monday’s work session on a proposed new animal shelter — the board supports building a new shelter, it is still doing its due diligence on the Rifle Range Road property and the city does not have the money to build it.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. met Monday morning with Aldermen Michael Mayfield, Alex Monsour, City Attorney Nancy Thomas, community development director Jeff Richardson and shelter director Kacie Lindsey for an update on the proposed shelter project.

The meeting followed a letter from Marilyn Terry seeking permission for a “peaceful” protest by supporters of the new shelter on Oct. 1 to get the board to commit to building the shelter. The group wants the city to have the Rifle Range Road property under contract by Nov. 1.

Event organizer Dianne Gargaro said the event will be Oct. 1 from 6 to 7 p.m. beginning at Walnut and Veto streets and ending at the City Hall, which is located at the intersection of Walnut and Crawford streets.

Gargaro said the group is not seeking any permits to hold the event, as the event will not block off any streets and that “no permit is needed for us to walk down the street.”

Gargaro said it is not the group’s intention to be confrontational with city leaders, but they do expect a response.

“We want the promise that the mayor and aldermen made to us to be carried out without further delay. They promised us a shelter,” she said. “That building those dogs and cats are in is 50 years old and it was a grain storage area that was then rigged into being a shelter. It was not adequate then and it is definitely not adequate now.”

The group has also placed an online petition on Change.org advocating for the shelter project to move forward. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had received support from more than 700 individuals.

Flaggs said he was willing to help the city and the shelter supporters get a new shelter, “But I am not going to commit, emphatically, to a Nov. 1 deadline on signing a contract.”

The city is presently operating under its fiscal 2020 budget that took a $2.8 million loss in revenue early in the year when businesses and casinos closed because of COVID-19. The $30.45 million 2021 budget takes effect Oct.1 but is very conservative with a projected $20,000 surplus. Also, the board has put a freeze on any new projects over $50,000.

The animal shelter project would not be susceptible to the 90-day freeze considering that it is considered an ongoing project.

Given the city’s present financial picture, Flaggs asked the board “Does it make sense to jump and sign a contract with anybody by Nov. 1?”

“I understand the shelter issue but we’ve got to find the money,” Monsour said. “I’m willing to do all I can (to build the shelter) but I’m telling you today there’s not money sitting around in the budget. We have to be fiscally responsible to this city and make sure we can operate and not go bankrupt.

“Nobody on this board ever said that we’re not for the pets and the shelter, but what we are saying is we’ve got to be fiscally responsible for this money,” he said. “But I’m telling you we don’t have it.”

The search for a new facility to replace the city’s aging shelter has been going on for several years.

Efforts to find a new shelter location picked up in 2019 with city officials looking at several sites, including one on Oak Street before settling on the Rifle Range road site, which is presently owned by Cappaert Holdings LLP.

A two-story building on the property is leased to the Mississippi Department of Corrections for its Probation and Parole Division.

Richardson estimated the city has spent about $10,000 for studies on the Oak Street and Rifle Range properties.

Thomas said the city has received a $187,000 appraisal on the property but more work is needed before the city can consider buying the property.

“We have not done a survey, we have not done (an) environmental (assessment) and we have not checked the title,” Thomas said.

Richardson said the city before the pandemic hired an architectural firm for an estimate to build an animal shelter on the Rifle Range Road site, adding project was estimated at $1.2 million.

The estimate, however, does not include the price of the property, which Flaggs said could boost the total project cost by at least $300,000 to $1.5 million — money the city does not have.

“The question facing us now, point-blank, is money,” Mayfield said. “If there’s $1.5 to $1.7 million to do this project then I need somebody to tell me where it is. We need to take a long, hard look at where we can get the money. I don’t know where it is.”

Monsour said he has never opposed the shelter project.

“I have the same concerns as Mr. Mayfield,” Monsour said. “I want to know where exactly we’re going to get the money.”

Monsour said the city has $1.2 million dedicated to the Haining Road levee extension for Vicksburg Forest Products that will also protect a section of the city’s main waterline. He said the city will be reimbursed for that work by the state in the future.

The city, Flaggs said, also has to repair a series of mud and landslides in the area he said could cost the city about $10 million to repair under a federal grant program that will reimburse the city 80 percent of the repair costs.

Flaggs said it is still uncertain how the city will finish the 2020 fiscal year.

“All I can be is fiscally responsible to this city and I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of this city,” Flaggs said.

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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