Until the late 1980s, Mississippi’s 82 counties operated under a “beat” system of government.
Today, 44 counties have converted to a unit system of government, including the Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties. (Clay is still a beat system.) Yet as Shakespeare noted long ago, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Under a unit system, the administration of roads (planning, funding, construction, purchase of equipment and supplies, employment, and so forth) is conducted on the basis of the needs of the county as a whole, without regard to district boundaries. A unit system requires the appointment of a county administrator and a road manager.
Under the “beat” system, a county is divided into five “beats” with each supervisor responsible for road and bridge maintenance and, more importantly, the funds necessary to maintain those roads and bridges. That kind of autonomy led to corruption because there was no accountability. Each supervisor had his turf and did as he pleased.
How bad was it? Between 1984 and 1987, the FBI, with the cooperation of state auditor Ray Mabus, conducted Operation Pretense, a sting operation involving purchasing activities in 26 counties. Seventy-one public officials, including 55 of the state’s 410 county supervisors, were ultimately convicted on felony charges.
The move to a unit system not only created accountability, it also helped counties make more efficient use of their roads/bridges dollars.
Oktibbeha County operates under a unit system, but perhaps only nominally.
Supervisors there have divided the roads/bridges funds equally among the five districts, which is a de facto beat arrangement. In this case, that which we call a “unit” by any other name is still, well, not very sweet.
For starters, when the needs exceed the funds available, dividing those funds equally means every district gets some money, but no district gets enough. And in those situations, turf wars may emerge.
How bad has it gotten? During a work session last week, District 5 supervisor Joe Williams suggested returning the $1 million in state funds provided to the county because there was not enough money to complete a road project in his district.
Other supervisors, most notably District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer, were aghast. Trainer suggested the shortfall could be covered by bond funds set aside for each district, which led Williams to say, essentially, “mind your own business.”
If that’s not a beat system, we don’t know what you would call it.
Under a true unit system, resources can be pooled, and a county can take advantage of an economy of scale — the bigger the project, the more competitive the bidding process, which ultimately saves taxpayer dollars.
It also helps prevent a hodge-podge of road projects that are determined by no other criteria but geography.
Oktibbeha County isn’t unique to the fight over road funds. We’ve seen the same territorial approach to road funds in Clay County and the City of Columbus over the years.
In every case, we have yet to see how this “every man for himself” produces the best result.
We fear the same is happening in Oktibbeha County.
Supervisors are supposed to serve dual roles, representing the people in their district, certainly, but also the interests of all country residents, regardless of the districts they live in.
Rather than a planned and coordinated effort to maintain roads and bridges, the de facto beat approach leads to infighting and inefficiency.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.