Lowndes County Board of Supervisors further delayed actions Monday on an agreement that would set up an annual funding stream toward the county’s Industrial Development Authority (LCIDA), which helps the county recruit business and maintain the Lowndes County Industrial Park near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
The agreement aims to provide steady annual funding for LCIDA to cover its operational costs, such as expensive water tank maintenance and infrastructure building, said Golden Triangle LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins, who helps manage LCIDA’s business.
Despite several meetings with LCIDA over the past few months, however, some supervisors said they are still confused about the obligations laid out in the draft agreement and concerned about committing funds without knowing where the need is.
Formed under the state law decades ago, LCIDA primarily oversees the businesses at the Industrial Park and maintains the properties on site, LCIDA Board President Thomas Lee previously told The Dispatch. The agency is governed by seven board members appointed by the supervisors and each serve a two-year term.
The LINK, which has a separate contract with the county to lead overall industrial development efforts, is hired by LCIDA to manage its day-to-day operations, Higgins said. LCIDA also holds its board meetings at the LINK’s office.
The county serves as a primary source of funding and is responsible for all the debts the agency accrues, Lee said. Historically, the county has allocated revenue from its general fund to cover LCIDA’s operational expenses. For Fiscal Year 2021, LCIDA asked for $1.3 million but was only budgeted for $285,000.
Under the agreement, which was unanimously approved by LCIDA board members Oct. 15, the group would still receive funds from the county to pay its debts, but would instead receive a mill’s value — however much a mill generates — from the county to cover its operational expenses. Mills are used to calculate property taxes, and one mill equals $1 of property tax levied on $1,000 worth of assessed value. Lowndes’ mill value this year is $750,000.
Supervisors would also need to give LCIDA a “three-year notice” if they wish to terminate the otherwise permanent agreement. If the supervisors gave the notice on Aug. 1, 2021, the agreement would expire Sept. 30, 2024.
Under state law, however, supervisors cannot enter into a contract that would outlive their term, which ends Dec. 31, 2023, supervisors’ attorney Tim Hudson told The Dispatch. For that reason, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks — who has advocated for the agreement — proposed Monday to allow the agreement to only last through their term.
However, Brooks later withdrew his motion and asked for further clarification on the matter after Sanders said several LCIDA board members suggested to him they did not need the funding. Sanders later told The Dispatch he spoke to two of them.
“I’ve talked to a couple of board members at LCIDA. They indicated they really don’t need the money. They’ve got the money,” Sanders said during the meeting.
Lee said that comment, along with the lack of actions at Monday’s meeting, came as a surprise to him. He said he does not think any board member would think LCIDA does not need the money.
“I thought it was a done deal,” Lee said.
Higgins said LCIDA will have a special-call meeting next Monday morning at the LINK, where he will ask each board member if they told Sanders the funds are unnecessary. LCIDA board members will then discuss how to proceed, he said.
More than enough?
Supervisors President Trip Hairston told The Dispatch he does not feel comfortable designating one mill without knowing if the agency needs it.
“As a taxpayer, I’m not sure that’s the best use of funds,” he said. “If they need something, we are more than happy to consider that and do that. To just dedicate a mill for three years running may be somewhat an issue.”
Sanders said he is not against economic development, but allocating the money would create a slippery slope where every county department may come for designated revenue.
“The Port Authority might come and ask us for a contract. Then the library is going to ask us for a contract to guarantee millage,” he said. “Then the (E-911 department) comes to ask for it.”
Sanders said he also has not seen a proposal from LCIDA on how the agency would use the property tax revenue if allocated. LCIDA also has $3 million in the bank, Sanders said, which he deems a rich cash balance.
“LCIDA hasn’t given us any indication what they need the money for,” he said.
But LCIDA has had several meetings with supervisors explaining why they need the money, Higgins said. Roughly $1.3 million of the cash reserve is untouchable as required by the Rural Development Authority, which loans the agency money, he said, and the rest of the money can be easily spent on expensive repairs.
“In September, Harry Sanders and his compadres, all five of them attended an (LCIDA) meeting,” Higgins said. “We went over an in-depth report about what we wanted to do, why we needed the resources and all that stuff. So the fact that Harry said he’s never seen (a proposal) — that’s not true.”
Lee said the agency needs a healthy reserve to expand the Industrial Park and build up infrastructure before industries move in.
“We were able to get (the current industries) because we had things ready when the companies were ready to go,” he said. “No company’s just going to come out here and just buy all the land and wait till you build the infrastructure.”
Higgins said he thinks Sanders’ opposition on the LCIDA deal is largely because of the backlash of his racist comments in June, where Sanders said to a Dispatch reporter on the record that the Black community remained “dependent” since slavery ended and failed to “assimilate” into American society. Higgins and the LINK, along with almost 150 local business owners, condemned Sanders’ comments.
“At the end of the day, that’s the problem. The comments he made … and the subsequent things that happened after that, and the business community calling for his resignation,” Higgins said. “The names that are on that list are some of the business industry’s major captains of this community. How do you get back? Well, you just don’t fund.
“What has happened over the last three (supervisors) meetings is economic development has been a political football,” he added. “It’s going to be to Lowndes County’s detriment, but it’s going to be to Clay County and Oktibbeha’s benefit.”
Sanders said he thinks his comments obviously affected his relationship with Higgins. However, he said he does not think his comments did more damage than Higgins did.
“You can’t name one single industry that hasn’t come here or won’t look at us because of any comments I’ve made. No, I don’t think it’s hurt a thing,” Sanders said. “(What hurts businesses) is the folks getting out there petitioning and hollering and screaming on a megaphone, ‘Harry, resign.’… The comments I’ve made? No. It’s the reaction that Leroy Brooks and the rabble rousers like that are doing.”
Sanders’ comments have drawn multiple protests both outside and inside the courthouse. Local psychiatrist Raymond Overstreet also condemned Sanders’ remarks at the Monday meeting and the election of Hairston as board president. Hairston, who is white, was elected board president in October 3-2 along racial lines.
“The message was clear. This board still votes along racial lines,” Overstreet said. “It indicated there’s no openness to change.”
In other businesses, the county accepted its Fiscal Year 2019 audit, which was conducted by Columbus-based T.E. Lott. The clean audit yielded no findings, according to the document.
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.