A State Auditor’s Office investigation into whether Oktibbeha County wrongly gave away county property to a private citizen may be nearing completion.
The county has been under investigation for an agreement supervisors made in the fall of 2017 to give metal panels from a bridge on Reed Road to Walt Starr, who owns property near the bridge.
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, in whose district the property sits, asked to use Starr’s property as a staging area for trucks, supplies and equipment for work on a nearby condemned bridge. Starr agreed and granted the county an easement.
In return, Oktibbeha County gave Starr some old metal panels and beams, valued at about $2,800 that were removed from the bridge. However, the county cannot legally give away materials to private citizens and the agreement triggered an investigation.
Howard, during Monday’s meeting, said Starr is requesting $5,000, for property damages and for reputation damage from public reporting on the matter.
“We need to go ahead and try to get that resolved,” Howard said. “His request is to fix his gate and bridge panels and he wants $5,000 compensation for using his property. Mainly for putting a bad picture in the paper.”
Starr, who lives in Columbus, is a periodontal surgeon with practices in Columbus and Starkville. He has also served on the Institutions of Higher Learning Board since Gov. Phil Bryant appointed him in 2015.
Speaking to The Dispatch Tuesday morning, Starr said he would not comment on the matter in depth while the investigation is ongoing. However, he said he’s only seeking compensation for property damaged from the construction.
“They’re working on that,” Starr said. “I don’t know what the figure is going to be. I gave them an easement. They worked on some of my property. They destroyed some of the property. They did a good job and that’s fine — that’s the nature of that work.”
Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors Attorney Rob Roberson said he advised supervisors, during an executive session discussion on potential litigation, to wait on making a decision on giving Starr any money until the county hears from the auditor’s office.
Howard said the board hasn’t settled on an amount.
“We were trying to come up with something that could make both sides happy,” he said. “We didn’t settle on anything because there are a couple of things involved in there. Mr. Starr has always been out to do what he could to help the county. He’s not going to ask the county for anything unreasonable.”
Roberson also said the county is now awaiting written instructions from the State Auditor’s Office.
“I’ve asked the auditor’s office to give me in writing exactly the steps they want us to take,” he said. “They’ve told us verbally, but I’ve asked for it in writing so we can comply with regulatory requirements for what we have to do.
“We didn’t quite do what we were supposed to to start with, and sometimes it’s best to measure twice and cut once when it comes to things like this,” Roberson later added.
In order to have given Starr, or any citizen, the panels Roberson said they would have needed to be declared surplus and sold.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a board order for that (declaring the panels surplus),” he said. “I think the board had meant to do that and discussed it, but there wasn’t an order.”
While Roberson said he couldn’t speak in detail to what the State Auditor’s Office will tell the county to do until he has written instruction, he said he’s not presently expecting any punitive demands from the case. He also said he doesn’t expect it should cost Oktibbeha County any money.
“Where the money comes from will have to be dealt with when I’ve got this nailed down,” Roberson said, “but the county shouldn’t be out any money from the panels.”
Roberson has previously indicated that Howard or County Road Manager Fred Hal Baggett could potentially be held liable to pay the money — Howard, for making the agreement, or Baggett because his department oversees roadwork such as the Reed Road bridge project.
Logan Reeves, a spokesman for the auditor’s office, said he could not comment on ongoing investigations.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.