Lowndes County employees who catch COVID-19 will have five fewer days of sick leave after Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.
The board had a policy granting employees an additional 80 hours of sick leave, above and beyond the 12 days they already get, for COVID-19. Originally, the policy came about because the federal government covered those 80 extra hours as part of the CARES Act. In 2021, the county voted to continue the policy, with the costs coming out of its own pocket.
Only employees vaccinated against COVID-19 qualify for the additional sick leave.
Tuesday, County Administrator Jay Fisher asked the board to extend the policy again, this time to cover the calendar year 2022.
“I never foresaw we would be considering this again in 2022,” Fisher said. “I think it would be wise for you to extend it for this calendar year.”
District 2 Supervisor and President Trip Hairston suggested cutting that amount down to five additional days.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “guidelines are down to five days,” Hairston said. “So why 80 hours instead of 40? I think we’re all in agreement that if you’re sick you need to stay home.”
The current CDC guidance is for people with COVID to quarantine for five days and then, if they are free from symptoms, to return to work but wear a mask for an additional five days. The CDC originally recommended staying out for 10 days.
After some discussion, the board agreed that it made sense to reduce the additional leave to five days.
“I think the simple thing is five days,” said District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks. “We have to ebb and flow with this, we can’t pass anything that is all-encompassing. We need to keep it simple enough that (Fisher) can send out a memo and the employees can understand it.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith made the motion, seconded by Hairston, to enact the 40-hour policy for the rest of this calendar year. It passed unanimously.
Military Lee tax break
The board voted to give Military Lee — the ongoing redevelopment of Lee High School — a tax exemption. The school is being repurposed into a mixed use development, with residential and commercial spaces and an auditorium that hosts public events.
Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews and developer Ruth Berry explained.
The city added the Lee development to both its Central Business District and Historic District in 2018, Andrews said, enabling it to gain tax exemptions. Developments that are in both the CBD and Historic districts can now qualify for tax breaks in the county, as well, under a new law.
“For a period of no more than seven years, the board can grant historic exemptions to (Military Lee) through that law,” Andrews said. “This is the first one we’ve done in the county.”
The development would stay on the rolls at its current valuation, and any modifications in the next seven years would be tax-free, Andrews explained.
Berry said that the first phase of the project — apartments and the rehabilitation of the auditorium — is complete. There are now 23 apartments, with “at least 21 or 22” of those currently occupied. Although the pandemic has slowed down rentals of the auditorium, activity is picking up.
“Things are starting to rebook, and it looks like it’s going to be a good contributor to our community,” Berry said.
Berry said she estimated more than $4 million had been invested to date in the project.
The board unanimously approved the exemption on a motion from Brooks and a second from Smith.
The board unanimously voted to move forward on restructuring debt at International Paper.
According to Golden Triangle Development LINK attorney Chris Pace, the company wants to refinance debt tied to pollution control facilities at the pulp mill on Carson Road.
Under a 1930s-era law, government entities could issue bonds for industrial development projects. Title to the improvements was transferred to the governmental body and then leased back to the industry, which pays rent. That rent is used to pay down the bonds.
The bonds were previously paid by Weyerhaeuser, but were passed on to International Paper when it bought the site in 2016. IP is restructuring its facilities and wants to refinance the bonds, Pace said, which total $88.2 million. The term on those bonds will be extended for 25 years.
The bonds are limited obligation, and will not count against the county’s debt. If they are defaulted on, there would be no recourse against the county, Pace said.
The bond refunding was approved on a motion by Brooks and a second by District 3 Supervisor John Holliman.