The town of Caledonia has taken a tentative step toward annexation.
During their monthly meeting Tuesday night, the town’s board of aldermen voted to have Oxford-based firm Bridge & Watson Inc., conduct a comprehensive study on what would happen if Caledonia’s town limits were expanded.
The study will cost the town roughly $5,000, Mayor Bill Lawrence said.
The town of roughly 1,200 people is seeing growth around its edges, Chris Watson, with Bridge & Watson Inc., told the aldermen during a near-hour-long presentation Tuesday night.
Watson told the board annexation is a complicated process that is ultimately decided by a Chancery Court judge.
“Sometimes there is a fight,” Watson said of annexation. “Sometimes there is not a fight. Usually, there is a fight,” meaning the court process gets drawn out.
The firm’s study, Watson said, would consider how the increase of size would effect everything from strain on the town’s services, to financial impacts to demographics.
“We don’t know at this point if we can or we can’t,” Lawrence said of the possibility of expanding the town. “We really don’t know anything. We’re not going to know anything until we at least start with a feasibility study. If we don’t do the study we will never know if we can proceed with this or not. We’ll never know if we can grow.”
The motion to proceed with the study was made by Alderwoman Brenda Willis. Alderman Mitch Wiggins seconded. Alderman Quinn Parham made the only vote against proceeding with the study.
Aldermen did not indicate Tuesday night what areas surrounding the town would be pinpointed for annexation. Watson left a map with city officials and told them to come up with what areas they would like to consider bringing into the city. Once that decision is made, the firm will proceed with the study.
Also Tuesday, aldermen voted unanimously to apply for a small municipalities grant of $150,000 from the Mississippi Development Authority.
Before the vote, Lawrence handed out copies of two letters he received last month from Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, regarding the grants.
“It gives me no pleasure in passing this out but we have a situation that we have got to correct,” Lawrence said.
Referencing the letters, the mayor insinuated that Smith was steering the town toward using the grant, if obtained, to upgrade its downtown street lights. The board of aldermen, however, want to use the grant for upgrades at Ola J. Pickett Park, the mayor said.
“I don’t know anything in the Mississippi code that allows him to make decisions for our town,” Lawrence said of Smith.
Smith is the town’s former board attorney. Chris Hemphill now serves at the board’s attorney.
“Chris could not make decisions for our town,” Lawrence said. “He can give the board advice and the board will then make the decision…It’s time for this board to bring it back into the way it should be — (with the board) making the decisions. And hopefully we can work this thing out with our state representative.”
Smith serves as chairman of the State Ways and Means Committee and his letters to the mayor were written on the committee’s letterhead. In one of the letters, he states, “I am going to take the position, you are more interest in benefitting the town of Caledonia and its citizens, than worrying who may take credit for a grant to this growing area. If you or your family dislike me, I am certainly sorry, as I hold no animosity towards you or yours.”
Lawrence, in a memo to Smith that he also shared at the meeting, said neither he or his family holds animosity toward Smith. Lawrence also wrote that he welcomes any help on grants that Smith could help the town obtain.
In a letter to the town’s board of aldermen dated Feb. 28, Smith said Lawrence told people that Smith lied about being able to secure a grant for the city last year. Smith said that was “silly and facetious.”
Lawrence, speaking Tuesday night, said “liar” is “a strong word.”
“I will apologize to him for that,” the mayor said.
Reached Tuesday morning, Smith said Lawrence may have called him a liar because Smith had hoped to secure a small municipalities grant for the city’s sewer project last year. However, the Caledonia Natural Gas District also applied for one of the grants. Smith said while more than 100 applications were sent to Jackson for the grants, only 31 were to be awarded. If the Caledonia area had received two, it might have been perceived as unfair. The grant went to the Caledonia Natural Gas District.
Smith, speaking on Tuesday, said Lawrence was a “good man.” He said his only purpose is to help the town and he does not care what the grant money might be used for, as long as it helps Caledonia.
“I love that town,” Smith said. “I want Caledonia to get what they can to help itself.”
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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