A long-simmering dispute between the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and the Mississippi Department of Human Services is one step closer to being resolved.
Friday morning the supervisors voted unanimously to begin negotiations with DHS to resolve differences over rent payments and maintenance of the county DHS office at 1604 College St.
The dispute arose in 2012 in the aftermath of a tornado that destroyed the original structure, according to County Administrator Jay Fisher. The county built a new facility with insurance money. After it was completed, DHS stopped paying rent to the county.
State law requires that the county provide a building for a county-level DHS office, but it does not require that it be rent-free.
“We went our separate ways in relation to that building,” Fisher said. “In 2012 the board discontinued payments for operating expenses for that facility.”
Those expenses included telephone, cell phone, pest control, utilities, janitorial, building maintenance and office supplies, Fisher said.
The biggest problem the building faces now is the replacement of an HVAC unit, Fisher said. There are six HVAC units, and one of those doesn’t work and must be replaced. He estimated the cost to be around $20,000.
“DHS has approached me and said they were interested in coming back into a lease agreement with the county,” Fisher said. “The county would take back over the maintenance for the building and they would pay us a lease agreement.”
Attorney Kimberly Gore made the state’s case. She said DHS could not make repairs.
“As a state agency, we are not permitted to make repairs to a county building,” she said. “But we do want to enter into a partnership with you. We have about 185 kids in our programs, and the staff there needs a safe place to work and to see children.”
Child Protective Services, along with other DHS county programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are administered from that office.
District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders said the building said when the building was “wiped out” by a tornado in 2012, DHS claimed it no longer had to pay rent since the new facility was built with insurance money.
“When the county went to charge DHS rent, they said the building didn’t cost us anything and so they didn’t feel like they needed to pay any rent,” he said. “… So we said we weren’t going to fix the building anymore. It seems like they can’t fix the building and now they want us to get involved in fixing it.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith said thought it was a “no-brainer.”
“Those people are struggling in that building with no proper heating and cooling,” Smith said. “Citizens we all represent frequent that building. We owe it to those families to provide a safe, adequate facility.”
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks turned to the Bible to express his feelings.
“I think of the prodigal son,” Brooks said. “He said give me mine, and let me go do what I want to do. Now that you’re coming back, I accept you wholeheartedly.”
District 3 Supervisor John Holliman asked how much money would be coming in, and Fisher said DHS proposed $10 per square foot for the approximately 14,000-square-foot building. That is consistent with their other facilities in the area.
Hairston moved, seconded by Brooks, to authorize Fisher to begin negotiations with DHS for a new lease. The motion passed unanimously.
City takes another swing at MDOT grant
The county agreed to help the city take another bite at a Mississippi Department of Transportation grant.
The city got a Transportation Alternatives Program grant earlier this year for about $1 million to improve the Fifth Street corridor between Fifth Avenue and Ninth Avenue North. Fifth Avenue runs along the north side of the Magnolia Bowl, and Ninth Avenue is the last cross street before the onramp for Highway 82 East.
The grant is to make the area more friendly for pedestrians and bicycle riders, and also to slow traffic. The city will put in about $400,000 in matching funds.
However, the grant was conditional on the city getting its 2020 audit complete and submitted by March 15. The audit is not yet complete, and so the city lost the grant.
Friday morning, Mayor Keith Gaskin asked the supervisors to apply for the grant on the city’s behalf and act as a pass-through for the money.
“We have all the matching money that is required for this project,” Gaskin said. “We will use our internet tax fund to cover that cost, and we have about $1 million in that fund. There would be no cost to the county at all.”
Fisher said the county was eligible to apply for the grant, but had no qualifying projects right now.
If the county is awarded the grant, it would use the money to reimburse the city for its expenditures on the project.
Engineer Zach Foster said, if the grant is awarded, construction would likely start in spring of 2024.
Brooks moved, with a second by Smith, to apply for the grant on the city’s behalf. The motion passed unanimously.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.