Barfield discusses county projects, encourages involvement
Published 1:32 pm Thursday, November 16, 2023
There is one question Warren County residents should be asking themselves daily, Kelle Barfield said, “Where do we go from here?”
Speaking to Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce members at the chamber’s monthly luncheon, Barfield challenged members to find ways to get involved in moving the county forward.
“Where can you be part of that change, that positive momentum that we already have; change is hard, but if you’re not changing, if you’re not growing, you are — fill in the blank.”
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She started by explaining the county’s economy, specifically as relates to tax rates. The county’s fiscal year started in October, adding the the county’s base levy is 50 mills.
“And when you add the millage that supports our public schools and Hinds Community College, that puts our millage here in Warren County at 117.77 (mills),” she said. “We’ve maintained your tax millage despite the rapidly rising inflation, consumer price index.”
In fiscal 2023, Barfield said the average millage in Mississippi was slightly more than 118.78 mill, putting Warren County in the middle of counties. “There are 43 counties that have higher tax millage. There are 38 counties that have lower tax millage,” she said.
She went on to talk about the good things going on in the county and the opportunities that lie ahead. Lowering taxes Barfield said is done one of two ways —spending less or raising more revenue.
One way the supervisors have kept taxes down, she said, is by working with state and federal officials to get more than $17.5 million in state and federal funds for county roadwork. The county’s portion for the roadwork was $3.5 million.
“You know how challenging the terrain is here, and we’ve had some catastrophic floods over the last couple of years with devastating impact to our roads and bridges, but by making use of those federal and state resources, we’ve managed to get a tremendous amount of work done; spending less by leveraging those resources,” Barfield said.
Another example of county and state collaboration, she said is the Old Courthouse wall.
When the present board took office four years ago, she said, one of the facades on one side of the courthouse wall had decayed. By working with state officials, the county was able to get grants from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History sufficient to cover almost 100 percent of the repair’s $3 million cost.
Another example of the board’s economic policies is the construction of the new county jail.
“Portions of our current jail were built in 1907, and we have kicked the can as a county as long as we possibly can and avoiding building this new facility,” she said. “So now with smart financing, we are looking at a jail of anywhere from $65 to $75 million without raising your taxes.
“Furthermore, we’re looking at building something that meets our needs for today and yet it has a footprint that allows for expansion, an innovative pod design.”
Barfield said the proposed Southern Port Project is another example of collaboration between city and county officials, the Warren County Port Commission and Economic Development Foundation “to take one of the most desirable sites in this county and make it viable when they (business) come, and they will come.
“Those businesses are going to come to that site. The next aspect of bringing in more revenue is we want to enable their employees to live here. Pay property taxes here so your taxes don’t go up,” she said.
She said the EDF has been working with builders, realtors and land attorneys to find ways to develop homes for the increase in the workforce caused by the port’s development. The county has set aside American Recovery Act funds to develop a housing plan.
She said education is part of the plan to keep workers in the county and it is undergoing a transformation toward improvement.
“I think most of you know that we maintained our district’s overall ‘B’ rating in the Department of Education’s most recent assessment,” she said. “I was so pleased when we got those results a couple of months ago. Every single school in our district saw improved proficiency in both math and English language arts.”
The school district’s four-year graduation rate, Barfield said, has gone from 58 to almost 90 percent in less than 10 years. “That is phenomenal, right?” she said. She said the number of students in dual enrollment, where they also take college-level courses has increased from 18 in 2014 to 932 now.
“And what that means is these young people are graduating with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree that they didn’t have to pay for,” Barfield said.
But there are still challenges to improving the schools, she said, pointing to the challenge of improving assessment scores at the intermediate and junior high schools. “Those schools did improve in their scores, but they are still not where we need them to be,” Barfield said. “When it comes to our school system, every single one of you can play a part,” Barfield said. “There are so many ways that you can plug in because our high schools transformed a number of years ago into college and career academies.”
Barfield said Warren County has a lot going on, adding people come from other communities to visit and shop in Vicksburg.
“They hear the downtowns being revitalized,” she said. “They want to just get away for the day, and they’re here and they’re enthusiastic and they’re excited. Does our complaining publicly about our needs encourage them to want to come visit or live here? No. We’ve got to be as enthusiastic as they are.”
She said the county has resources that do a good job of getting people to come and support the restaurants and hotels “but we also want them to live here and we want them to pay taxes here so we’re not having to pay more. We’re bringing in more revenues.”
Barfield encouraged people to get involved, calling the area “an environment where each one of us can play a part.”