Following a unanimous vote, Lowndes County Industrial Development Authority (LCIDA) board members approved Monday morning a draft agreement to ask the county for an annual funding of $750,000 for three years.
The Monday proposal is the latest of LCIDA’s recent attempts to set up a steady cash flow to cover its operational expenses. The newly-proposed agreement came after supervisors expressed concerns and delayed actions on previous versions asking for permanent funding out of the county’s property tax revenue.
However, some supervisors — who previously showed reluctance on the fund allocation — continue to raise questions about the need for the money.
“If you are just dedicating a set amount of $750,000 a year, I think you need projects associated with those figures,” supervisors’ president Trip Hairston said. “Put the project to the dollar.”
LCIDA, a subsidiary of the county that serves as its economic development arm, was formed under a 1974 state law. The authority, which primarily maintains the Lowndes County Industrial Park near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, is governed by seven board members, each of whom is appointed by supervisors and serves a four-year term. LCIDA pays the Golden Triangle Development LINK roughly $140,000 per year to manage its daily business, LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins previously told The Dispatch.
Currently, LCIDA receives funding from the county’s general fund each year for its operational expenses, and the county is responsible for paying off all LCIDA’s debts. In Fiscal Year 2021, LCIDA requested $1.3 million from the county but was budgeted to receive $285,000.
The annual allocation, however, is not enough for LCIDA to build up a healthy reserve or build up infrastructure before industries move in, LCIDA board president Thomas Lee previously told The Dispatch. LCIDA now has $3 million in the bank, $1.3 million of which cannot be spent as required by the Rural Development Authority, which lends LCIDA money.
To receive more revenue, LCIDA first asked the county in November to permanently designate a mill’s value — however much revenue one mill generates — each year to fund the authority. 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, according to the county’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
Following supervisors’ concerns that the contract would outlive their terms, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks last week proposed adding a three-year limit to the agreement, which he withdrew later pending clarification from LCIDA whether and why they need the money.
On Monday, four of the seven LCIDA board members, including Lee and Frank Lockhart — District 2 appointee and vice president of the board — attended a special-call meeting and agreed unanimously they need the funds for future economic development. Lockhart proposed to ask the county for an annual funding of $750,000 for three years, which was unanimously approved.
Lockhart could not be reached for comment by press time.
Lee said the amount is a good figure. The authority needs the money, he said, so that when an emergency arises, the authority can spend money for repairs out of its own pocket, instead of waiting for supervisors to meet and approve funds.
“If we have a line go out, Severstal ain’t going to wait until we go to a meeting to get it fixed. It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
The proposed agreement, which merely changed the request for one mill to a fixed figure — which is the equivalent of a mill’s value this year — did not change a lot of hearts among supervisors.
District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders said he will remain a firm “No” on the matter if the agreement comes to a vote. The county should not enter into a contract with its own subsidiary, he said, and he does not think LCIDA really needs the funds.
“There’s no reason in the world to change horses in the middle of the stream,” he said. “We’ll fund LCIDA through the normal budget procedure, normal budget practices that Lowndes County has participated in for the last 20 years.”
Hairston said committing $750,000 each year may not be a good use of taxpayer money. If LCIDA is trying to build up a reserve, he said, he would like to see an upper limit.
“It’s important to know how much is enough as far as the reserve,” he said.
Lee said it’s impossible to predict how much they need in the bank, because it varies case-by-case. The $1.7 million available in the bank can be easily spent, he said. Painting each of the three elevated water tanks, for example, would cost roughly $300,000 to $400,000, he said.
“You never know,” he said. “I think we’ll have to be comfortable with the $750,000 right now. If we need more, we’ll go back to the supervisors and request more.”
Brooks, who has supported LCIDA’s proposals for designated funding, said he will vote in favor of any agreement LCIDA brings back to the supervisors.
“Operating the Industrial Park can be a very expensive proposition,” he said. “… I have no problem with them getting the money even if they don’t spend it all. If something unforeseen happens, they don’t have to come to the board for the money.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith could not be reached for comment. District 3 Supervisor John Holliman did not attend the meeting after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, Sanders told The Dispatch.
In other business, supervisors reappointed Adam Charles Holmes as the District 4 appointee on the LCIDA board, whose term will now end in 2024.
Greg Rader, who served as an at-large member on the board, did not seek reappointment. His term expired Nov. 30, and two applicants have applied for his position. Supervisors tabled the appointment to allow for more time to interview the candidates.
One of them is former Lowndes County Administrator Ralph Billingsley, who served in that role for almost 13 years before retiring in September. He said he applied because he would like to apply his financial knowledge to the county’s economic development.
“With my extensive financial experience and everything, and having worked in the county administration for almost 13 years,” he said, “I think I could bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to that board.”
Kyle McConnell, president of McConnell Brothers Transfer and Storage in Columbus, also applied for the position. He could not be reached by press time.
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.