At the April 27 Lowndes County Board of Supervisor meeting, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks took back his “yes” vote which would have allowed parking county department administrators to use vehicles for personal use.
Explaining his vote change, Brooks said, “At the last board meeting, at the recommendation of Ralph (Billingsley), the county administrator, he made a recommendation that a number of county employee’s not be able to drive their vehicles home. And most of these are considered people on 24 hour call. In the days leading up to the meeting (he’s speaking of the Friday, April 13th meeting. RW), I had a number of discussions with Ralph, and I’m assuming he had discussions with y’all…but this was predicated on the notion that we may have been in violation of IRS regulations that these employees were not maintaining records that they could be taxed because it was considered a fringe benefit. After talking with some of the employees that didn’t want to pay that extra money having to deal with that tax…and the fact that, that’s where it was, I voted to support that. Since then, I have found different information. And I don’t know if all the board members are aware of it, but I had a number of people to call me.”
Continuing, Brooks added, “After we passed this…again, I talked to those persons that were affected (Cindy Lawrence-EMA, Sammy Fondren-Fire Coordinator, Sheri Fancher-E911, Anthony Nelson-Juvenile Detention Coordinator and Joe Richardson-Youth Court Bailiff), – and let me say this….I try to be fair to all employees. So I’m not here pushing for any one employee.”
Referring to the employees involved, Brooks said, “The one thing they did voice some disappointment. They wish they had been called-in and advised of what was happening prior to reading it in the newspaper…and all of us share that sympathy. I went back and talked to Ralph after I did some further investigation. And Ralph said that the information that he had received from Tom Buckley, information that was dated May 18, 2010…and that was the information that was used for the decision that I made. I went after further investigation. The IRS issued their final decision on May 19, 2010. Now most of y’all and I have copies…I’m gonna pass around. All of you may not know that when most federal agencies issue final regulations, it can be found on a federal register. So I went and did some further research. The IRS code that was issued on May 19, basically, those persons that we told to park their vehicles, that are clearly marked as emergency vehicles. They are exempt!”
Brooks had more to say. “And so, based on that…I went down to a supervisors’ conference. As part of the conference, I did a presentation and in my discussion I brought it up. The interesting thing is, everybody there laughed, because they thought it was so funny…because we were saying to people in an emergency nature…that they couldn’t drive their vehicles home.
“If Sammy Fondren (Fire Coordinator), and I don’t know where Sammy lives…but if Sammy is at his house…and there’s a major fire somewhere in a different direction, it would not make sense for him to have to come to the courthouse, get his vehicle…and go to the fire site. We’ve all gone through, at least a situation where all the communication was down, all the light was down, all the gas pumps were down.is, And we’ve all seen the situations that arise with the Emergency Management. What I want to do, because one, I voted based on erroneous information, not blaming Ralph…cause, Ralph…is this something you’re doing or are you being encouraged by other supervisors?…and he never says anything about anybody else, so. If anybody takes the blame, I’m gonna let him take it. Jeff (Smith, District 4 supervisor) probably had it right when he said (at the last meeting), let’s delay and do further investigation. I voted strictly (in favor to park the vehicles) because I thought we were not following the IRS regulations. Now that I’ve learned better, I want to come back in, make a different motion and to authorize those persons that want to drive their vehicles be allowed.Now, if some of y’all don’t think they ought to, that’s fine. If it’s about saving gas, then we need to do an analysis and see how much gas they’re burning versus the Road Department. But there is a greater distinction here, and I need to say this. I support 100% what the Road Department does, but we do make a distinction between the Road Department and other parts of the county. All of it’s important. If a tree is across the road, the Road Department is important. If a tornado is blowing a bus up on top of the school in Caledonia, then Emergency Management and 911 is important. When all of the electricity went out, 911 went down. It became the most important thing in the county, because we were talking about sending police out with megaphones. So I don’t think we need to play one against the other. All of it’s important. I think at every opportunity we need to make employees feel that they’re treated with the same respect, and that they’re not singled out. I cast a vote on information that’s not true.”
Harry Sanders said, “Do you want to make a motion?”. Brooks responded, “I want to make a motion that, we allow those persons to drive those vehicles, that we grounded, if they choose.” Jeff Smith said, “I second that motion.”
Sanders asked for discussion. District 3 Supervisor John Holliman said, “Talking about Sammy (Fondren) responding to fires…I’ve never known Sammy to respond to any fire.”
Brooks stated, “Well, John…if he doesn’t, he needs too…he needs too. I don’t want to get into that discussion.”
Sanders told Holliman that he still had the floor. ” The firemen say that he (Fondren) doesn’t respond to any fires…whatsoever. The only one I ever saw him at, and he was on his way to work, he stopped on Hwy 50, but other than that, according to the fire department, he doesn’t respond. So, therefore, I don’t see any where it would be a need,” Holliman continued.
Sanders said, “Let me make a point. We got off track when the IRS got involved in this. This doesn’t have anything to do with the IRS. I think Ralph, when he brought it to the board, put in the IRS…but the IRS doesn’t have anything to do with the board’s decision to have five department heads, who are not emergency responders, who are in an administrative position, to park their cars and not take their vehicles home at night. When they go to work, they go from their house to their office. They do not go out on any emergency response whatsoever. 911’s office is downstairs…when there’’s an emergency, they go to their office. They don’t respond to an emergency out in the field anywhere. When Cindy Lawrence gets called, her responsibility is to report to the state and everything after the fact, not during an emergency. Her office is downstairs.She comes straight to the courthouse, doesn’t go out into the field. Sammy Fondren’s job description is to report to Jackson and officials down there, after the fact, after fires. He reports what happens in coordination between the volunteer fire department and the state insurance commission, and the board of supervisors. He does not respond to any emergency. That’s not in his job description. Anthony Nelson at Juvenile Detention, his office is at the Juvenile Detention office. He does not respond to any emergency whatsoever. The IRS code says, law enforcement and emergency responders clearly marked. And those five positions are not emergency responders. The difference between them and the Road Department is that the Road Department responds outside their office to problems in the road, and their job description is taking care of the roads. So when they drive home, or drive anywhere in the county and they’re on a county road, their responsibility is to look and see if there’s anything on that county road that needs attention. They’re at work as soon as they get to that county road. So, there’s a tremendous difference.”
The discussion turned to the fact that it is about gas and misuse of vehicles, and not about the IRS. Brooks argued that is what should have been stated in the first place. Sanders argued that it was stated in the first place. Brooks claimed it was “cloaked under the IRS.” Brooks also seemed to claim that County Administrator Ralph Billingsley tells individual supervisors different things.
Brooks said, “I was told it was the IRS…Isn’t that what you told me Ralph?” Billingsley started to speak, but Brooks repeated, “No, I just want that one question answered first…did you not tell me it was an IRS code?”
Billingsley answered, “Yes I did.”
“OK,” said Brooks, “if it’s about gasoline, the board should have said gas. In other words, I was told one thing, Jeff was told the same thing…I don’t know what you all were told. Therefore, we don’t need to have private meetings.”
Brooks stated that vehicles can stay parked, adding, “ I just want to get my vote clear. “
District 2 Supervisor Bill Brigham said, “The only thing I’d like to say is, we’ve got a new motion so we can discuss it today, we can vote on it today. But, I still feel the same way. Because I don’t feel like it’s necessary to furnish vehicles. And it’s not just gas, but the wear and tear on the vehicle…but the misuse of the vehicle. So I still feel the same way, that we need to park those five vehicles.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith said there were some good points brought up, but he still didn’t feel there was enough information on each of those individual administrators to make a decision to take their vehicles away.
The vote was finally taken. It was 3-2 to keep the vehicles parked, with Brooks and Smith voting to return the use of the vehicles to the administrators to use as they choose.
In other board action:
Tax Assessor Greg Andrews presented the 2013-2016 Real Property Reappraisal update.
County Administrator Ralph Billingsley announced an extension for application deadline for the vacant District 4 board appointment to the Port Authority. A vacancy became available when Dennis Erby recently resigned the position to focus on his appointment as Mississippi Northern District U.S. Marshal.
Gave county resident Joyce Manigo until July 15 (during a public hearing) to clean up her burned-out property located at 440 Concourse Road. Then the county would come in to perform the task and then bill her for it.
The next scheduled board meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 7 at 9 a.m. at the Lowndes County Courthouse.