Monday’s Lowndes County Board of Supervisors meeting was a matter of give and take.
Supervisors voted unanimously to increase funding for the district attorney’s office by $6,000 while later voting 4-2 to remove retirees from the county’s health insurance plan. The latter move will go into effect Dec. 31, 2015. It is expected to save the county $150,000 annually.
District Attorney Forrest Allgood made his pitch to the supervisors early in the meeting, urging supervisors to step in to help correct a deficit of more than $12,000 in his office since July.
Allgood attributed the current deficit to two revenue factors. First, he said, the money his office receives through collection of bad check fees continues to decline.
“Nobody writes checks anymore,” he noted. “So that revenue is declining and will continue to decline.”
The bigger factor, Allgood said, can be attributed to the effects of HB-585, which passed during the last legislative session and became law on July 1. It reduced many felonies to misdemeanors, which Allgood said had the unintended consequences of seriously reducing the amount of revenue district attorneys receive from pre-trial intervention programs.
Under those programs, first-time felons paid fees, attended classes and counseling and submitted to drug tests in exchange for having their felony charge dismissed upon successful completion of the program.
Under the new law, the number of defendants eligible for the pre-trial intervention program — and the fees that go with it — have dropped dramatically.
“Just about all of the felonies we are seeing now are repeat offenders and aren’t eligible for the pre-trial intervention,” Allgood said. “This last session, the grand jury returned 98 felony indictments. In the mid-1990s, that number was usually in the 300-range. I’ve never seen that few felonies in my time as district attorney.”
To make up for the shortfall, Allgood asked supervisors for an additional $500 per month. He said he also plans to ask Oktibbeha County for $500 per month and will ask Clay County for $200 a month.
Board president Harry Sanders made a motion to provide the funding Allgood requested, but not before asking about other sources of funding.
“Have you and the district attorneys of the state and the people who lobby for them asked the state for the money?” Sanders asked. “If they created this, it’s their responsibility.”
Allgood didn’t dispute that point.
“The fact is we have the problem now and now is the time we have to solve the problem,” Allgood said.
Sanders also asked why his office wasn’t approaching Noxubee County for additional funding.
“They’re in the red,” Allgood said. “You can’t give what you don’t have.”
While the board approved the increase in funding for the district attorney’s office, the supervisors more than made up for that expense while addressing the renewal of the county’s health insurance plan.
The board voted 4-2, with Jeff Smith and John Holliman opposed, to follow the path of the city of Columbus by dropping its retirees from the county’s insurance plan.
County Administrator Ralph Billingsley said he was intrigued by the Columbus city council’s decision on Aug. 21 to drop its retirees from the city’s insurance program.
“It made me wonder what doing that would mean to the county,” Billingsley said. “When the numbers came back, it showed we would have a net savings of $150,000. I thought it was something the supervisors should consider.”
After voting to renew its policy, the board approved the move to drop retiree coverage in 2016.
According to Billingsley, 10 former employees will be affected.
“Two of those have spouses who work in the county and can get on their spouses’ plans and the other two are eligible for Medicaid because of disability,” he said. “So this won’t affect many people at all. Plus, there are a lot more options out there now than there used to be and the retirees have 13 months to find that coverage.
“Given what the county stands to save and the fact that so few people are affected, it seems like a reasonable thing to do.”
In another matter, the board voted unanimously to approve installing an LED billboard on county-owned property within the Columbus city limits.
The county had already acquired the zoning change required for the billboard, which will be located on Highway 82 between the Downtown and Fifth Street exits.
The billboard, if approved by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, will generate between $1,500 and $4,000 per month. Those funds will go into the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority budget.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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