In-fighting among Lowndes County supervisors over two minor agenda issues dominated about half of their meeting Tuesday as issues of board protocol and assisting the city of Columbus took center stage.
It started when District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith asked the board to allow the county road department to run a “cherry-picker” truck down Gregory and Chandler roads, both of which are located in Ward 1 inside the city limits. Smith said Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart had asked him if the county could provide the help to remove low-hanging limbs that had encroached the road and ditches.
Smith said he took Stewart’s request to Road Manager Ronnie Burns, who declined to do it without expressed board permission.
“We’ve done this before numerous times, and I haven’t had to bring it to the board,” Smith claimed.
That brought fierce opposition from District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders.
“When have we done this before?” he asked Smith.
Smith could not name another specific instance.
That launched Sanders into another stanza of his long-held criticism of the city public works department.
“I come into town on Military Road every day, and there are 10 to 12 (public works employees) standing around with weedeaters,” Sanders said. “They can certainly cherry-pick their own roads.”
Sanders, who missed the Aug. 16 board meeting due to illness, also criticized the board’s decision in that meeting to offer county road employees and equipment to assist the city with debris pickup. Mayor Keith Gaskin formally asked for the help due to the shorthanded public works department falling significantly behind on brush pickup.
The county road department is shorthanded, too, Sanders said, before noting, “I’m not against the city.”
That drew Leroy Brooks, District 5 supervisor, into the fray.
“Yes you are,” he told Sanders, then accused him of embellishing the situation. “… (The brush cleanup issue) is over. You weren’t here to cast a vote. … Every time something comes up with the road department, you think you’re the father of the issue. We’re all trying to take care of Ronnie.”
District 2 Supervisor and board president Trip Hairston expressed willingness to help the city, even with something as simple as cleaning limbs from streets from time to time. He expressed some concern about the road department making special efforts to do it, however, preferring instead for them to fit it in upon request when crews are already working in the area.
Smith, at this point stewing over the lengthy discussion, aimed his disgust at Hairston.
“This is not a big deal,” Smith said. “It’s taken you longer to talk about it than it would take to get it done.”
Sanders chimed in, “Then why hasn’t the city done it yet?”
Ultimately, the board voted 4-1 to grant Stewart’s request for assistance, with Sanders opposed. But the tension immediately spilled over into an agenda item focused on paving county community center parking lots.
On Aug. 16, Recreation Director Roger Short addressed the need to pave the New Hope Community Center parking lot, due to the road department having to routinely replace gravel there. Smith, at that meeting, also wanted to address parking lot paving at Concord and Crawford community centers and raised that discussion again on Tuesday.
Hairston proposed splitting the projects over the next three fiscal years, paving New Hope, then Concord and Crawford. Smith then began challenging Hairston on why New Hope should get first dibs.
“I brought this to the board, and now you’re going to take over and determine which ones we do first?” Smith asked Hairston.
Sanders then moved to pave all three, “as soon as possible,” which passed unanimously. Then he tacked on criticism of the city for not taking care of its parks.
“No,” Smith interrupted. “The city isn’t part of this discussion.”
Short told The Dispatch after the meeting all three parking lot projects would cost a combined $143,000 if the county road department did the work itself. A third party would nearly double the cost.
Hairston said after the meeting he wanted to split the work up over three fiscal years to keep from overtaxing the road department.
He prioritized New Hope because he understood that project to be the “squeaky wheel” and most pressing of the three.
Budget hearing, LINK appointee
In other business, supervisors decided to advertise for a slight property tax increase for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, to help fund employee pay raises.
Last year, the county collected 41.26 mills based on a mill value of $750,000. That value is expected to remain flat, meaning the county would need to raise the rate to generate new revenue.
The county plans to advertise for a mill rate of 42 in its required newspaper ad that must be published twice prior to the board approving its tax rate Sept. 15. That increase would generate an additional $555,000 for the county next year.
Supervisors said they can always back off of that and approve no change in the rate.
A mill is used to determine property taxes. One mill is equal to $10 in taxes for every $100,000 of assessed property value.
Supervisors on Tuesday also appointed Chad Thomas, owner of McConnell Brothers Transfer and Storage, to the Golden Triangle LINK Board.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.