District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders held his twelfth annual community meeting in Steens on June 27. County officials were on hand to speak to a large crowd of citizens and political hopefuls.[Mr. Sanders holds constituent meetings annually in Caledonia, Steens and Anderson Grove. The meetings are usually on Tuesday nights, but this particular meeting was rescheduled so as not to conflict with the scheduled CLOPAC forum. – Brian Jones] County Administrator Ralph Billingsley was the first to speak. He gave a brief overview of capital improvement projects and an update on the budget.
“You’ve heard some of this before, because some of these projects have been going on for a while,” Billingsley said. “But some of them are now completed. We have the new county health department up and operational. It is a beautiful facility, a tremendous addition to the county’s asset list. The county spent about $1.8 million on that facility, and we secured a grant that paid about $600,000. We’re really proud of that. The other facility that we’ve completed and that we’re really proud of is the facility where my office is, the tax office and the administration building. [Tax Assessor] Greg Andrews has the downstairs, and I’m upstairs with the [chief financial officer], inventory, payable, payroll, purchasing and the board of supervisors’ secretary. That’s at 1121 Main Street. We spent about $950,000 purchasing the 12,000-square-foot building and we put a little over $500,000 in it.”
Renovations to the courthouse and construction of a new Justice Court building are underway.
“Anybody who has been in the courthouse in the past six months knows that it’s a pretty major project,” he said. “It’s been very disruptive for the people who work there, but it’s going to be very nice when we finish. We spent about $1.1 million renovating there. The justice court building, which is over there by the jail, is well in progress. It’s looking very good. We’ve got about $2.1 million in that, and it will really upgrade that facility. “This isn’t a capital project, but the board has voted to move the county extension office from the former house behind the courthouse over to the building on Seventh Street where the Convention and Visitors Bureau was housed. We’re going to lease some space for them, and we hope to have that worked out in the next month or so. We’ll probably end up taking the old building down to improve parking around the courthouse.”
Billingsley said the county budget is in “real good” shape.
“We are in real good shape in most of the county departments from a budget standpoint,” he said. “Everybody worked really hard. We’ve had a lot of things, like gas prices, that have been negative on us. We’re in good shape, though, as far as our current budget, but remember we still have a long way to go. Our budget goes through September. Everything was looking really good except for in the sheriff’s department and the road department, where fuel is a huge part of their operation. With fuel prices we are a little over budget in both of those areas.”
Following Billingsley’s remarks, several members of the audience asked about flood issues in and around Steens, and Sanders responded: “There was talk about a flood control lake that’s going to go on the Alabama/Mississippi line. The Mississippi people said okay, that’s good, we’ll do this, but the Alabama people said they wouldn’t. They didn’t want to give the easements for those floodwaters to be on their land. That’s still in the works. The engineering work has all been done, and the Corps of Engineers has looked at it, but we have to get the property owners to say okay.
“The county can’t go on private property and do any work unless it’s affecting the county roads,” Sanders said. “If it’s affecting the county roads, we can go 100 feet off the road to clean out a date or whatever. We also have the capability to control the beavers if the legislature will give us the money this next year to fund the beaver control.
“The Tombigbee River Valley Water Management District will not come on private property to do work without getting easements from the landowners,” Sanders said. “We’ve been able to get all the landowners but one involved, and without all of them the TRVWMD won’t do the project. On Sand Road we’re having problems with the wetlands issue. Sometime about 15 or 20 years ago the statement was made that we will not get rid of any more wetlands in the United States. Any time you take a wetland, you’ve got to mitigate it and find some somewhere else. The mitigation bank right now is $30,000 per acre. The nearest bank is in Monroe County, and it will cost us $30,000 per acre to take wetlands out of there and put them over in Monroe County, and it’s a long process to get the Corps to even agree.”
Lowndes County Road Manager Ronnie Burns gave a brief update.
“I took this job over about three years ago, and since that point we’ve made a lot of drastic changes in the road department,” he said. “The road department works as a unit system, but it had been run like a beat system. We started running it like a unit system, and if we need to bring trucks from Caledonia to Crawford then that’s what we do.
“I’ve got 60 employees and we work four days a week,” Burns said. “The shop works on Friday, so if something needs work we can bring it in and have it ready to go by Monday. We’re trying to get the best price on everything we buy. A lot of people used to say it was only the county, we can charge them what we want to. We stopped that. I got two secretaries, and one of them’s job every day is to call around and get quotes on everything we need. We run about 26 trucks and a humongous amount of equipment, and when something breaks down we call around and get prices. We’ve bought parts from Tuscaloosa, Alabama if that’s where it’s cheaper. People here have come down now on their prices, and they’re dealing with us like they need to be. We’re saving money that way.
“Most of our duties during the day is working on roads and signage,” he said. “We work on the ditches and culverts. We try to keep them changed out. This year so far we’ve probably changed 150 culverts out. When we put a culvert in, we enlarge it if we can. We try to clean ditches as much as we can. We do the best we can. We also help the Lowndes County Schools, park and rec, the fire department as much as we can.”
Chancery Clerk Lisa Younger Neese spoke briefly.
“As [Billingsley] said, we’ve been renovating our office, so we’ve been real busy,” Neese said. “Sheriff Howard let us have nine trustees to rearrange the vault. If you’ve never been in my office, we have a vault with all the old records dating back to 1830. We had to shift all these cabinets and counters with big, old books so we worked all weekend on that. If you haven’t been in the courthouse, it looks really nice and you should come see it.”
Pat Stanley was on hand on behalf of Circuit Clerk Haley Salazar; Salazar was unable to attend because her husband was having surgery.
“We have relocated our office from one end of the courthouse to the other,” she said. “We also have a new filing system and a new vault. All the old files had to be moved, some of them dating back to the 1800s. It has been a very busy time.”
Stanley reminded voters that the first election deadline is coming up.
“August 2 is the primary,” she said. “You must register to vote 30 days prior to any election. That deadline is July 2, which falls on a Saturday. We will be open that day from 8 a.m. until noon.
“Absentee voting is available for anyone who is over 65 and wants to vote ahead of time,” she said. “If you are disabled, you can vote absentee. One that you may not know is that if your job requires you to be at work during the hours that the polls are open you can vote absentee because you will not be able to get to the polls. Our office will be open July 23 and July 30 from 8 a.m. until noon for absentee voting. If you haven’t voted by noon on July 30 you have to go to the polls.”
Sheriff Butch Howard was next to speak. When Sanders jokingly asked him if he was running for re-election, Howard responded, “I’m not running for anything other than my recliner.”
“This is probably one of our busiest time of the year,” Howard said. “All the kids are out of school and our calls pick up dramatically. Some things we’ve been doing to combat that is to work details during the day in high-crime and high-drug areas and doing a lot of traffic stops and stopping and talking to people. You’d be surprised how many times you find drugs or find warrants and things of that nature.
“We still have an active Metro Narcotics unit,” he said. “As you read in the paper last week we’ve just wrapped up a long investigation and served some search warrants on some doctor’s offices. These things take a long time and it’s not something that you hear about until it’s over.”
The final speaker of the evening was Link CEO Joe Higgins, who gave a brief summary of economic development issues.
“First, let’s talk about current construction,” he said. “If you haven’t been out to the Lowndes County Port, you should go out on the island and take a look. It is phenomenal. This is the KiOR project, it’s in construction. They’ve delivered a piece out there that is the largest piece ever to be delivered to the Lowndes County Port. It’s going to be set up probably around the first of July. It cost around $5 million and will cost $1 million to raise it up. [KiOR] is going to be a $200 million project. That’s the one where they take trees and make oil out of it. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not going to work, but there are private investors who invested $200 million in it because they think it’s going to work. They’ve done it in test and in pilot.
“We’ve also got New Process Steel and Mississippi Steel Processing out on the Severstal site, they’re up and running,” Higgins said. “They’re talking about doubling their physical plant and they just moved in. We took action on a project with Weyerhaeuser, there’s substantial reinvestment there and Aurora is adding some space and some production at their facility. That’s what’s going on as far as if you were to drive around and look at things that are being built.
“West of Golden Triangle Regional Airport, we are well on the way to installing $17.5 million in water and sewer,” Higgins said. “You’ll soon see a million-gallon tank on that side of the airport and 12 miles of water line. There are wells and filter plants going in west of GTRA. We’ve arranged for low-interest, long-term financing through the Rural Development Administration to purchase at least 900, maybe as much as 1,500 acres, by the end of the year.”
In addition, Higgins said the Link is working on “a book” of projects.
“Right now we’re as busy as we’ve been and have more dollars in potential investment than we’ve had since the Link was born in June 2003,” he said. “They range from automotive to aerospace to wood and paper products to alternative energy. There are a lot of projects out there looking. It’s for between $2 billion and $3 billion. It’s probably between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs in play. These projects take about a year to mature, and it’s a lot like the NCAA tournament. You survive and advance.”
Many of the projects are very large, he said.
“We’re not seeing a lot of $5 million or $6 million projects,” he said. “The projects we see are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We don’t see projects that do a couple of megawatts of power. We see the hogs. One is looking at 170 megawatts, which is more than the city of Columbus. We’re seeing big, big projects.”0