Headlines – 6/14/2005

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Panolian: HEADLINES – June 14, 2005

  From the 6/14/05 issue of The Panolian :             

     Railroad workers and subcontractors, including Ortez Head (left) of Tchula and Ryan Hart of Yazoo City, on Monday began renovations at the railroad crossing on the south side of the Batesville square. The project will replace crossing underlayment, eliminating the dips between rail and pavement that have jarred motorists.
Jobless rate shows decrease in Panola
By Billy Davis

The newest batch of state unemployment figures shows improvement in Panola County, where a plant expansion was recently announced and newly elected mayors say economic development is a priority.

Panola County’s unemployment rate dipped to 8.4 percent in April, state figures show, a drop of four percentage points since last November.

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The Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which tabulates unemployment figures, released the latest county numbers last week.

The drop in Panola’s unemployment comes with mixed signs of the county’s economic strength: Batesville Casket Company has announced an expansion, for example, while Batesville sales tax collections have dropped in recent months.

The lowest unemployment rate in April was 4.1 percent in DeSoto County. Jefferson County had the highest rate at 12.5 percent.

In state rankings of April unemployment, Panola County ranked 63 among the state’s 82 counties.

Last November, Panola’s unemployment had risen to 12.0 percent, pushing the county to a ranking of 77.

Panola Partnership CEO Blair Jernigan called the new unemployment figures a "hopeful trend," noting that national and state unemployment figures are also dropping.

The national unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in April, down from 5.4 percent in March. In Mississippi, the rate was 6.3 percent in April, down from 7.0 percent in March.

The drop in unemployment comes at the same time as sales tax collections for Batesville have slowed, The Panolian reported in its May 31 issue.

Sales tax collections are down five percent from April 2004 figures, figures from the State Tax Commission showed. The state paid $2.82 million to the city from July 2003 to April 2004, but that total was $2.78 million for the same period in 2004 and 2005.

Asked about the sales tax drop for the news story, Jernigan wondered if the county’s high gas prices might affect the sales tax numbers.

Regarding the more hopeful unemployment figures, Jernigan noted the expansion at Batesville Casket, which is moving a 200-job operation from New Hampshire to its Batesville plant.

Batesville Casket announced the relocation May 31. The plant is located in the W.H. Harmon Industrial Park.

Batesville Casket is already the county’s largest employer, boasting a 400-person payroll, according to June figures from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA).

In its profile of Mississippi counties, MDA catalogues Panola County’s five largest employers. The other top Panola employers currently are:

     – Springs Industries, 334 employees
     – Framed Pictures, 300 employees
     – Crown Cork & Seal, 225 employees
     – ACI Building Systems, 177 employees

Job numbers can quickly drop, of course. Springs, located in the Sardis Industrial Park, boasted the top number of jobs last year with 500 employees, according to the MDA Web site.

Also, when the expansion at Batesville Casket was announced, a company spokesman said the company had "looked at every possibility," including closing the Panola operation, before deciding to close the New Hampshire facility.

The county’s biggest job shakeup came in 1996 when Fruit of the Loom-owned Panola Mills closed its doors.

Panola County’s industries account for 24.8 percent of the job force here, according to 2000 MDA figures, while government jobs take second place with 20.6 percent of the workforce.

Although retail stores in Batesville line Hwy. 6 and Hwy. 51, retail jobs in the county account for only 11.1 percent of the jobs here.

Other sources of income in Panola County are:

     – Services, 18.1 percent
     – Wholesale trade, 8.0 percent
     – Construction, 7.9 percent
     – Transportation, Public utilities, 5.3 percent
     – Finance, insurance, real estate, 3.4 percent

The new unemployment figures come after the May and June municipal elections in the county, where job growth and economic development were campaign topics.

In Batesville, Mayor-elect Jerry Autrey has said he would try to lure a Clarksdale-based industry to Batesville if elected. In recent weeks, Autrey said he will help Batesville Casket with its planned expansion.

After the election last week, Autrey said he intends to make good on his promise and "hit the ground running" in a search for job opportunities.

On Wednesday, the day after the general election, Autrey was attending a planning meeting for the June 23 job fair at the Batesville Civic Center.

In Sardis, where the city is struggling to build its tax base, Mayor-elect Rusty Dye said he intends to search for retailers and industries.

"We intend to work strongly with Panola Partnership to push something our way," Dye said. "If it’s a business with 10 jobs, we’re after it."

Since the county has endured double-digit unemployment for more than a year, Dye said he was pleasantly surprised at the apparent drop.

"I wasn’t aware of it, but I’m glad to hear it," Dye said.

According to Jernigan, whose primary focus is industrial recruitment, Panola County is thriving in many areas other than industrial jobs. He rattled off new banks, retail shops, Performance Foods and the FedEx shipping center in the industrial park as examples.

"Let’s stop thinking about a job only as a person getting a raw material and turning it into a finished product," Jernigan said. "A job is a job, and everybody needs one."



Como mayor’s election may face
     further challenge
By Jason C. Mattox

Following last Tuesday’s general election, Como’s new board of aldermen is apparently a settled matter, while the question of who’ll be the new mayor is still up in the air.

The new city board will be joined by either incumbent Mayor Azria "Bobby" Lewers or his challenger Judy Sumner in operating the town for the next four years.

Sumner, who lost by only four votes, has hired Hernando attorney Gerald Chatham to represent her while she contests the election results. Chatham formerly served as District Attorney for Mississippi’s 17th Judicial District.

"All I am at liberty to say is that I have secured an attorney who will handle the contesting from this point forward," she said.

Chatham indicated he has never handled an election contest before, but said he is familiar with how the process works.

"We have filed our motion to contest some of the ballots with the Como Democratic Executive Committee," he said.

Chatham said no date has been set to examine the ballots, but said he hopes this can be a speedy process.

"I think as soon as we see the ballots, the process will move quickly," he said. "We can contest certain ballots before the committee, and, if we are not satisfied, we can appeal to Panola County Circuit Court."

Incumbent Alderman-at-Large John Walton defeated challenger Dr. Forrester Ruhl.

Walton will join fellow incumbent, Ward 3’s Ruby Johnson-Higgenbottom, and three newcomers on the board of aldermen.

Those newcomers are Clark Gregory in Ward 1, Richard Taylor in Ward 2 and Everette Hill in Ward 4.

County to look for new engineer for roadwork
By Billy Davis

The Panola County Board of Supervisors terminated the employment of county engineer Pete Sullivan Monday morning, citing numerous complaints about substandard work.

Board of Supervisors President Jerry Perkins made the announcement public after the supervisors emerged from a 40-minute executive session.

Perkins later said the vote from the supervisors was unanimous.

Sullivan is employed with McBride Engineering, a Batesville firm. He was hired by the county in 1994 when he took over for Jake McBride.

The five supervisors had met at the county courthouse in Batesville for their "second Monday" meeting.

Sullivan was present for his dismissal. He had arrived at the courthouse during the executive session, waiting in the hallway until the supervisors finished and opened the doors.

Sullivan said nothing after Perkins’ announcement, leaving without comment when the board broke for a five-minute break about 15 minutes later.

During that same break, Perkins told The Panolian the decision to terminate Sullivan came after numerous complaints about his performance.

Sullivan had not been told of his coming dismissal, Perkins also said.

"We just had so many negative comments from just about everybody," Perkins said. "It just got to the point that we had to do something."

Professionals who work with the county serve at the will and pleasure of the board, such as the administrator, board attorney and engineer.

Sullivan is also the county surveyor, an elected position, Perkins said.

Sullivan will remain employed for 30 days, then the county will advertise for a new county engineer.

County and contractor seek solution
   on Ballentine Road
By Billy Davis

County supervisors’ tussle with Sardis contractor Nolan West over road work went another round at the supervisors "second Monday" meeting, this time with West saying he has hired an attorney to represent him.

The disagreement is over West’s contract work on Ballentine Road, where he built the road and is demanding he be paid for the project.

The board said Monday that West would receive his check for the Ballentine work some time that day.

Last week, McBride Engineering representative Warner McBride announced that the two parties had worked out a compromise: the county will repair several driveways while West will improve the intersection at Old Panola Road and do pipe work.

This week, West told supervisors he plans to charge interest on the money he’s owed and will charge the county the attorney’s fees he’s incurring.

West said he’s due over $100,000 for the Ballentine Road project and $64,000 for another county project.

At the meeting, District two Supervisor Robert Avant confronted West about his work, saying the construction on Ballentine was poorly done and needs improvement.

The intersection is a "mess" because the plans were poor, West replied, but he’s not responsible for the plans.

West also complained about this newspaper’s coverage of the squabble, saying he doesn’t deserve the blame for the condition of the road and residents’ driveways.

Pressed by Avant for a timeline on the work, West said he could likely complete the work on Ballentine Road within 60 days.

"People at church ask me every Sunday when that work will be done," Avant said.

During the supervisors’ three-hour meeting, county road manager Lygunnah Bean visited the Ballentine site with civil engineer Keith Quick, both men later returning to the courthouse with a report of their findings.

According to Quick, the county can improve the driveways to some degree if Bean can get temporary easements from the residents.

The board agreed for Bean to pursue the easements.

In other county business:
The Board of Supervisors authorized attorney Flip Phillips to pursue a settlement for the return of North Panola Hospital to the county, which is entangled in litigation, board attorney Bill McKenzie announced following an executive session.
     McKenzie said Phillips is in "step one" of negotiations.
Supervisors voted to advertise for bids to replace an air conditioning unit at the county courthouse in Batesville. The vote was unanimous.
     County Administrator David Chandler said one half of the unit is "burned up," and replacing that half would cost $30,000. The expected price for a complete unit is $50,000, he said.
     The courthouse and its offices are noticeably warm due to the faulty air conditioning, and fans are buzzing in offices to fight the early summer heat.
     Chandler said the county can use a five-year lease-purchase to buy a new unit.
     Chandler said the new unit will be part of a planned overhaul of the courthouse air conditioning, which is slated for the fall.
Supervisors voted 5-0 to sell two county garbage trucks and advertise for two new ones.
     Solid Waste manager Dean Joiner made the recommendation, saying sturdier bodies are needed for the Mac truck frames.
     "They’re not bad. They’re just not made for what we’re doing," Joiner said. "We didn’t know that when we got them, but we know it now."
     Joiner also asked for and got permission to advertise for a truck tractor that can haul open-top dumpsters.
Supervisors voted 5-0 to hire constable Raye Hawkins to help Solid Waste search for 9-1-1 addresses and delinquent Solid Waste customers.
     Chandler made the recommendation, asking that Hawkins receive $400 a month during a three-month trial period.
Panola Partnership C.E.O. Blair Jernigan announced that he is applying for a $150,000 grant that would allow for site work for potential industrial sites in north Panola County.
Supervisors voted to allow Chancery Clerk Jim Pitcock to hire a part-time employee on a full-time basis at $1,600 a month. The employee is not returning to school, he said.
     Pitcock asked the county to supplement part of the the employee’s salary but did not say how much.


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