| House fire, explosion suspected meth lab
| The caved-in roof of a home at 111 Hillcrest smolders with smoke Wednesday as Batesville firefighters work around the home to put out so-called hot spots. One of the occupants, Ross Tittle, was burned in an apparent explosion in the home. The cause of the explosion is under investigation.
Batesville firefighter Rip Copeland catches his breath after fighting the Wednesday afternoon house fire at 111 Hillcrest. The fire was called under control about 20 minutes after the first fire truck arrived, but the heat of the fire and summer weather took their toll on firefighters.
By Billy Davis
A Batesville man is in intensive care in a Nashville hospital following an explosion and house fire Thursday afternoon in Batesville.
| An investigation is now under way by the Panola County Drug Task Force, which suspects the explosion at 111 Hillcrest Drive was caused by a working methamphetamine lab.
Ross Tittle was apparently burned severely in the explosion and ensuing fire, which occurred about 3 p.m. in the attic of the brick, one-story home.
Tittle lives in the home, located in the Westmoreland Heights subdivision, with his partner, Lloyd Turner.
Tittle could have been in the home alone when neighbors heard an explosion and called police.
"I heard a big boom, and then a little while later came the smoke," said next door neighbor Carolyn Goodnight, 79.
Goodnight said she dialed 911 after her husband saw smoke billowing past their back door, but Batesville police officers were already on the scene when she made the call.
Tittle was treated first at Tri-Lakes Medical Center and was later sent to a burn center at Vanderbilt University Hospital, said drug task force commander Jason Chrestman.
Batesville Assistant Police Chief Tony Jones said Tittle may have driven himself to the hospital after the explosion.
According to Batesville Police Captain Jimmy McCloud, patrolman Cassandra Miller knocked on doors and windows of the home to make sure no one was home.
McCloud also said he learned about the explosion from the Goodnights and immediately alerted the firefighters of the apparent danger. He also told neighbors to move farther away from the home and closed off the deadend street to passersby.
Turner and Tittle operate an antiques store and flower shop, Amazing Vase, which is located on the Square in Batesville.
As reports of the house fire and investigation swept through the county Thursday morning, vendors were removing their consignment wares, wondering aloud if Turner had been arrested by Panola law enforcement.
Panola County Chief Deputy Craig Sheley said Thursday morning that Turner had not been arrested and was not in custody, and a warrant had not been issued for his arrest.
Chrestman also said Turner was not in custody. "We’re still investigating," he told The Panolian.
Chrestman said he did not know where Turner is presently located and added that he has not spoken with him nor Tittle about the incident.
Turner and Tittle were arrested earlier this year in Batesville at Wal-Mart, where they each were charged with possession of meth precursors with an intent to manufacture. That charge is a felony.
Task force member Jamie Tedford said Thursday the pair were attempting to buy cold medicine and Coleman fuel, both needed to manufacture meth.
Tedford said the case against the pair is still under investigation. "We’re waiting on lab results," he said.
Tedford, who lives on Hillcrest near Turner and Tittle, said a small propane tank discovered in the home was a dangerous sign. Such tanks are used to hold a key meth chemical, anhydrous ammonia.
"If those tanks blow up, they can rip through a wall like a bullet," said Tedford.
Batesville firefighters said the roof of the home was ablaze when they arrived. Smoke was rolling out of the attic vents.
Panola County fire investigator Gerald White said the first fire truck arrived seven minutes after the 911 call, at 3:08 p.m. The fire was reported under control at 3:29, he said.
| Grants sought for old Panola Mills, library
|By Jason C. Mattox
By the end of the summer, the Batesville branch of the First Regional Library System could be a cooler place to hang out.
Following a recommendation from architect Girault Jones, city leaders unanimously voted to advertise for two new 10-ton air conditioning units.
Librarian Barbara Evans informed the board that there would be no cost to the city thanks to grant money.
"We have grant money available that can be used for the new a/c units," she said. "First regional came up with the additional matching funds.
"The only possible way the city would have to pay is if we exceed $35,000," Evans added.
Following the vote on that issue, Jones moved on to other topics.
"We need to discuss the re-roofing of the old Panola Mills building," he said.
The Panola Mills building located on Van Voris Street is presently being used as a warehouse facility by Batesville Casket Company.
The city became the owners of the building when the textile mill responsible for producing underwear and T-shirts closed its doors in 1995.
"I have had two roofers up there and they don’t seem to think patching the roof will work," Jones said.
The architect suggested completely re-roofing the portion of the building being used, but added it would cost an estimated $200,000.
"I have been told that J.C. Burns (of Burns Development Group) has spoken with the Mississippi Development Authority about a possible grant," he said.
Jones said if the funds become available, he would suggest removing the existing rubberized roof and replacing it with a better grade of materials.
Assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell said the grant money available would be a reimbursement grant where the city would pay for the work and then be repaid by the grant.
Mitchell added that all of J.C. Burns’ fees would be paid out of the grant funds.
"If we don’t get the grant, the city will not have to pay Burns," he said. "If we do, all of his fees will be paid from the grant.
"It really looks like this will be a good opportunity for the city to get this work done at no cost," Mitchell added.
Ward 3 Alderman James Yelton asked how much the fees would be, but his question could not be answered.
"So, if we feel like his fees are too high, we don’t have to proceed with the grant process," Yelton said.
Mitchell told the board they had the right to not accept the grant if they did not feel comfortable with it.
| Mayor’s salary still hot topic
| By Rupert Howell
Almost 70 citizens were in the dark Tuesday, July 5, during the first meeting of Batesville’s new mayor and board of aldermen, but there were enough fireworks during a 30 to 45-minute storm power outage to "light up" the city hall board room anyway.
Alderman Bill Dugger brought the mayor’s salary issue back to the table with a motion to set new Mayor Jerry Autrey’s salary at $40,000 annually. At the final meeting of the former mayor and aldermen on June 21, the new mayor’s salary had been set at $19,500.
Dugger’s motion received a second from the city’s new alderman-at-large, Teddy Morrow, but was voted down 3-2 with aldermen Rufus Manley, James Yelton and Bobbie Pounders opposing the salary measure.
Manley, Yelton, Pounders and then-Alderman-at-Large Hudson Still had voted at the June 21 meeting to set the figure at $19,500. Former mayor Bobby Baker had been paid $56,300 during the last of his 30 years in the elected position.
News of the June 21 salary action created a backlash that brought the record crowd to the first meeting of the new administration.
Immediately after the July 5 salary motion failed, Alderman Manley made a motion to elect Yelton Mayor Pro-tem, a position previously held by the alderman-at-large.
That motion was seconded by Pounders and passed 3-2, with Yelton also in favor and Dugger and Morrow opposing. Autrey promised a mayoral veto within a 10-day limit. An override of the veto would require four votes. Currently, Batesville has no mayor pro-tem.
Ed Allen, an unsuccessful candidate for alderman-at-large in the June 7 municipal election, called the action to cut the mayor’s salary "low down and lousy." He later suggested a "watchdog group" to monitor the board’s activities.
James "Dane" Griffen asked two of the board members (Pounders and Yelton) to resign their board positions immediately, calling their actions "dishonest, deceitful and unprofessional."
Jerry Cooley, who was unable to unseat incumbent Ward Three Alderman Yelton in the May 3 Democratic Primary, told the board they had done a "dis-injustice and been disrespectful toward the new mayor.
"A divided house can’t stand. You need to work better together. The people have spoke. Be fair," Cooley added.
"Y’all are just as wrong as wrong can be," said Kenneth Bloodworth, who prefaced his comment on the mayor’s salary issue by saying he had kept quiet as long as he could.
"We better change something and start right," Bloodworth added.
Former Batesville alderman Glenn McKittrick commented, "I hope this board will take action immediately to rectify this (mayor’s salary) reasonably."
Others addressing the board on the mayor’s pay included Maxine Musgrove, Fred Hentz, Mary Lou Evans, Janice Dulany, Cecil Sharpe and Vernon Ferrell. Many of those who spoke were applauded following their comments, but the crowd gave Ricky Swindle an ovation before he said anything.
Swindle maintains a marquee at his business on Highway 6 and Eureka Street that lately has been critical of the city board’s decisions.
Although everyone was given an opportunity to speak at the meeting by Mayor Autrey, many didn’t. All who did supported the mayor’s salary being raised or were critical that the amount of the salary was set before the new mayor took office.
Board members who voted for the $19,500 salary for the mayor were accused of getting back at Autrey because "the man y’all backed didn’t win," according to Fred Hentz.
The lengthy meeting was recessed until today at 10 a.m. when the mayor and board of aldermen will hold a budget work session at City Hall.
| Industrial prospect looks here to locate hi-tech jobs
| By Billy Davis
Panola County and City of Batesville officials learned this week that a high-tech auto company plans to relocate its business to Batesville.
Panola Partnership CEO Blair Jernigan went public with the announcement Tuesday when he spoke separately to the Panola County Board of Supervisors and Mayor Jerry Autrey and the Board of Aldermen.
Jernigan did not name the prospective company, which he said produces automotive parts for automakers in the Great Lakes area.
"It’s a high-tech company that uses robotics, so there would be some job training involved for new employees," Jernigan later told The Panolian.
The company has committed to provide 80 jobs and a $2.3 million payroll by its second year in operation in the county, Jernigan told supervisors, and 130 jobs by its third year.
The unnamed company originally wanted to occupy the former Moog building in the W.M. Harmon Industrial Park, but that building has been sold to out-of-state investors, Blair told The Panolian Wednesday.
Despite the obvious setback, Jernigan said the automotive prospect is still interested in coming to Panola County, and the Partnership is committed to finding it an adequate facility.
"They want to work to find another option. They want to be in Panola County," Jernigan said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the Partnership CEO told supervisors and city officials that the prospect’s move to the Moog facility amounted to a $10 million investment.
The multi-million dollar investment included $6 million in new equipment, $1.5 million for purchase of the building, and $2.5 million for building improvements.
The city and county boards immediately committed to aid the investment, agreeing unanimously to Jernigan’s request that they split the $1.5 million building purchase, taking out a $750,000 capital improvement loan to do so.
If the proposal had been completed before the Moog building was sold, the building would have been leased to the prospect for 10 years.
Although that scenario is now unnecessary following purchase of the building by the investors, Jernigan praised the county supervisors and city officials for their cooperation and commitment.
"It showed their commitment to jobs for the county," Jernigan said.
Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey, who began his first four-year term this week, credited city officials for working with the Partnership to bring the prospective industry here.
That work took a detour with the sale of the Moog building, the mayor said, but the work is continuing.
"Everybody’s working hard to make it happen, and we’re working on a contingency plan now," said Autrey.
The Mississippi Development Authority and TVEPA had also committed to help the prospect relocate to Panola County, Jernigan told supervisors Tuesday.
Regarding the new owners of the Moog building, Jernigan said they’re already lining up prospects to view the Batesville facility.
"The owners are aggressively pursuing prospects to bring jobs to Panola County, and we’re going to help our prospect relocate to Panola County," Jernigan said. "We’re going to make lemons into lemonade."
| Unemployment up slightly in county
| By Billy Davis
Panola County’s unemployment rate rose from 8.4 percent in April to 9.5 percent in May, a jump that’s comparable with a recent rise in unemployment across the state.
The state’s May unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, up from 6.3 percent in April, according to statistics gathered by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES).
Among a comparison of the state’s 82 counties, Panola’s unemployment bumped it only slightly, moving the county from 63rd to 64th place.
Panola boasted 1,470 unemployed persons among a labor force of 15,450, MDES figures show.
Before the May jump, Panola’s unemployment rate had steadily decreased from a 12-percent high in November of last year.
Five counties, including Yalobusha and Quitman, were tied with Panola County’s unemployment rate.
DeSoto County boasted a rate of 4.6 percent, the lowest in the state and the only county under five percent.
The highest unemployment was in Jefferson County, 14.7 percent.