Headlines – 10/14/2005

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005

The Panolian: HEADLINES – October 14, 2005

  From the 10/14/05 issue of The Panolian :                    

New rules for county hires
would bar political runs
By Billy Davis

Panola County government is revamping and updating its employee policies, introducing some rules and tweaking others in an updated version of the county’s employee handbook.

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Among the proposed changes is a prohibition against county employees campaigning for public office while still working for county government.

County Administrator David Chandler rattled off that proposed change and others at the supervisors’ "second Monday" meeting this week.

Supervisors took the proposed changes under advisement.

Employees who choose to seek office must first resign from their job with the county, Chandler told supervisors, reading from newly added paragraphs and sentences in the handbook.

"Is that legal?" asked District 2 Supervisor Robert Avant.

"It’s legal if it’s part of your personnel policy," Chandler responded, explaining that the rule must be part of the policy to be enforced.

"You can’t tell people they can’t run for office if it’s not in your personnel policy," Chandler told The Panolian.

"What if an employee takes a leave of absence?" asked District 1 Supervisor James Birge.

"They can if that’s what you want to put in there," Chandler said.

If the candidate policy was already in place, the new rule would have affected Chandler himself, who ran for chancery clerk two years ago.

The new campaign rule would not affect the sheriff’s department, which follows its own employee policies and where three of its employees are running for sheriff.

The fresh look at the county handbook comes after Pitcock recommended in recent weeks that the county revisit its policy of dismissing employees with four or more garnishments.

Pitcock had complained that the chancery clerk’s office was unfairly burdened with employees juggling multiple garnishments and those seeking to recoup a piece of their paycheck.

The four-and-you’re-gone garnishment policy was already included in the employee handbook, Pitcock noted, but wasn’t being enforced.

The policy remains unchanged in the updated handbook, but Chandler will notify all employees of the upcoming enforcement that begins January 1.

All county employees will "start at zero" January 1 and will be dismissed if they have at least four garnishments.

As the supervisors discussed that subject, Avant mildly ridiculed the new rule for its start-from-scratch approach.

"So if you have four garnishments you really only have two starting January first," Avant said.

The circumstances in which to fire employees were altered slightly in the handbook after "unacceptable job performance" was changed to read "unacceptable job performance of assigned duties."

A policy that one relative can’t oversee another relative within the same county department now includes marriage. One spouse must leave the job if a couple in a department unites in marriage.

Other proposed changes are prohibiting employees from bringing firearms onto county property, strengthening the drug testing policy, and deleting the county’s code of ethics since no such code exists.

Chandler reviewed the employee policies along with Pitcock, payroll clerk Malia Brewer, purchasing clerk Carolyn Mills, and road manager Lygunnah Bean.

A copy of the updated handbook is available for view in Pitcock’s office, Chandler told supervisors.

Store owner keeps it folksy despite row over paving
By Billy Davis

The Panola County Land Development Commission heard business owner Stan Holcomb explain this week why he has yet to pave his parking lot more than a year after he opened for business.

After a 15-minute discussion with the commission, Holcomb said he would apply for a variance instead of paving his parking lot and driveways.

Holcomb owns Stan’s Country Store, located at Hwy. 6 East, where he sells vegetables and fresh cuts of meat.

Holcomb dumped white rock in his lot to provide a parking area, but the county’s zoning policy requires commercial businesses pave their parking lots and provide standard-size parking spaces – each one 9-feet wide and 20-feet long – for customers.

The number of parking spaces varies per business since the number is calculated by the total square footage of the business.

Holcomb’s appearance before the commission was mostly light-hearted, thanks in part to his folksy manner, but the store owner has had since August 2004 to pave his lot.

Holcomb’s unpaved parking lot, therefore, is the commission’s latest test of its influence in planning and regulating growth and development in the county.

"We’ve had two to three people say, ‘(Holcomb) never did his parking lot so why do we have to do ours?’ It’s becoming a problem," commission member Donna Traywick told her colleagues

Explaining why he hasn’t paved the lot, Holcomb said he is waiting for trees to be cut from the roadside – a task that involves collaboration between TVEPA and the Miss. Department of Transportation – before he puts down a hard surface.

"If I pave it now, they would probably tear it up with their equipment," Holcomb said. "They’re gonna be all over that parking lot."

Holcomb also insisted that his business looks nice already and the paving job would be expensive.

Still another reason is the "big trucks" that deliver goods to the store could tear up the paved lot, the store owner said.

After Holcomb finished with his comments, commission attorney Colmon Mitchell tried to compare notes with Holcomb in order to prepare the board’s monthly minutes.

"Let me make sure I’ve got all the reasons you haven’t complied with what the commission told you to do," Mitchell said.

"Well, you’re wording it a little bit differently than I would like," Holcomb replied, grinning.

The store owner also announced plans to slaughter beef at the store and said he is working with the state to properly prepare the site for that task.

Commission member Danny Jones reminded Holcomb that he would have to apply for that request through the county and a public hearing would be publicized and held.

At the end of the discussion, Holcomb asked if he could pave only the portion of parking lot located directly in front of his store.

"You need to file for a variance or pave according to the rules," replied Bob Barber, the commission consultant.

Holcomb then announced that he would apply for the variance.

"Y’all come buy some meat," Holcomb said as he departed the meeting.

The topic of defining day care centers and schools spilled into a second month of discussion at the Monday commission meeting.

Asked at the previous meeting to research the topic, Barber suggested to the commission that a day care be inserted into the county ordinance as a special exception in a residential area.

Per its standard procedure, the commission set a public hearing for its November 14 meeting to publicize the definitions of schools, day care centers and other similar activities.

The definitions are drawn from the American Planning Association’s planning dictionary.

The commission members did not bring up one other subject covered in their September meeting: increasing the lot size for mobile homes.

Commission chairman Danny Walker introduced the subject at the previous meeting but was absent for this month’s meeting.

Commission member Sledge Taylor presided over the October meeting in Walker’s absence.

     What would Fire Prevention Week be without a trip to the fire station? Batesville Elementary School kindergarten student Callie Chun reacts to the siren sounded for the children’s benefit Thursday. Her classmate Keiyondre Lester didn’t seem to mind the noise. More than 600 BES students visited Fire Station One this week.
Conservation officers communicated when Katrina victims were in need
By John Howell Sr.

A decision in 2004 to purchase satellite radios for the conservation officers of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks proved to have been prescient during their response to the Gulf Coast in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Conservation officers, with electronic conversations not shackled by downed antennas, could talk to each other.

Not only could they talk to each other, they could act as dispatchers for other agencies providing emergency relief, Conservation Officer Marion Pearson said Tuesday.

Pearson’s comments about the radios came almost as an afterthought Tuesday when he spoke to the Batesville Rotary Club. As part of the Department of Public Safety, conservation officers of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks were in the state’s initial emergency response to the coast. When he spoke Tuesday, he was only about a week removed from the emergency duties he and so many more were summoned to the coast to perform.

Rubert Morgan had chosen Pearson as speaker for the October 11 meeting, and since Morgan is an avid outdoorsman, it’s a safe assumption that he invited Pearson to speak about hunting seasons, current and pending.

Which he did.

Pearson said that turkey, quail and rabbit populations have flourished in the state partially due to epidemics of distemper in coons, skunks and coyotes. "We’ve been real fortunate to have had it three years in a row," Pearson said of the distemper outbreak in predators. The decimation of the predator population has allowed populations of game to increase to the point of surviving a resurgence of predators, he said.

But like all hurricane survivors and those who have visited those devastated areas in its immediate aftermath, Pearson had a story that he just had to tell, and his presentation became a dichotomy between changes in the 2005 hunting laws and response to the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

The state’s emergency response had been planned after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This time, preparation and advance planning had placed personnel from the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety in staging areas at Hattiesburg and Pearl with equipment ranging from front-end loaders to chain saws and four-wheelers, Public Safety Commissioner George Phillips stated. The first contingent left Hattiesburg at 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon, August 29, clearing a path through downed trees and debris. They arrived on the coast almost eight hours later.

Their initial work was search and rescue, Pearson said. For the first week and most of the second, Pearson and the other state employees went house to house, looking for survivors in the rubble. They used boats on the rain-swollen streams, rescuing people from houses and from newly-created islands amidst the debris.

"As it has progressed, we moved more into a law enforcement capacity," Pearson said, continuing the post-hurricane saga. Officers manned roadblocks, guarded a FEMA check distribution site and a police fueling site.

"We had total communications with the new satellite radios we have in our vehicles," Pearson said. They dispersed the conservation officers in their vehicles to every staging location.

Hunting regulation changes
A change in the hunting regulations has changed the description of a primitive weapon to include replicas of pre-1900 rifles that use a brass cartridge. The weapon must be .38 caliber or larger and must have an exposed hammer, Pearson said. He also advised hunters who utilize the primitive weapon season to check regulations closely to make sure their gun complies.

Crossbows may now be used for hunting. Formerly only people with disabilities that prevented them from pulling back a long bow or compound bow were allowed to use crossbows, the conservation officer said. A crossbow permit which can be purchased for $15 will now allow any hunter to use replicas of the pre-gunpowder weapon. Crossbows may be used during gun season and primitive weapon season but are prohibited during archery season, he added.

There may be 20 to 25 black bears in Mississippi at any given time, Pearson said, responding to a question. Those found on the east side of the Mississippi River are usually young males chased out of the Arkansas territory claimed by an older male. Those bears that find their way as far east as U.S. Highway 61 usually end up as road kill, he added.

Which is why Pearson doubts that there are any panthers still to be found in the state. No road kill evidence, he said.

What percentage of the state’s deer population is killed each year?

"Not near enough," Pearson responded. "The population just about eats itself out of house and home before greenup each year." The conservation officer said that he hopes that a tele-check method could be implemented for reporting deer kills. Hunters could easily call in their reports and give conservationists a more accurate count of hunting results.

The sale of hunting licenses is down $1 million this year, Pearson said. Hurricane-displaced hunters are distracted with other priorities.

Mississippi’s first alligator hunting season did not yield as many of the reptiles as conservation officials had hoped, and the need for a hunting season will continue, Pearson said. One eleven-foot gator was caught. Conservation officers often respond to calls about nuisance gators. Officers attempt to relocate those six feet and under. Those over six feet are "dispatched," he said.

All users of state wildlife management areas can expect to pay an annual fee for use of the land starting this year, Pearson said. The money will be earmarked in a special fund to be used only for maintenance of the areas, Pearson said.

One reason for converting conservation officers’ vehicle radios to satellite technology was for more complete coverage in remote areas of the state. Officers frequently encountered "dead spots" where reception and transmission was inconsistent due to terrain and distance from conventional antennas. Their potential for communicating during a disaster was also mentioned then, but mostly as an added value.

Who could have foretold how valuable they would be in the late summer of 2005?

Owners must make more steps for sale
By John Howell Sr.

The transfer of Tri-Lakes Medical Center from the joint ownership of Panola County and the City of Batesville to Physicians and Surgeons Hospital Group moves along, albeit slowly, J. C. Burns said this week.

Burns is the consultant hired by the city and county to handle the sale of the hospital. He said that the volume of detail involved in the $25 million transfer of the property could be best understood by anyone who has gone through the lengthy process and paperwork involved with purchasing a home through a relatively simple residential mortgage.

"They (the buyers) have to borrow the money to buy the hospital; there’s a lot of work to be done to get the loan together," Burns said. Before anything can happen, "the loan must close," he added.

"Once the money is in hand, they will turn over a check for whatever amount – the amount of the purchase plus the defeasance of the bonds, to a trustee," Burns continued. The trustee would order new securities to allow defeasance of the bonds. Defeasance is basically the process of buying back the publically-issued bonds that had been sold by the county to finance the hospital. The length of time required for the bond defeasance is approximately two days following the money being handed to the trustee, Burns said.

Thursday, October 13, had been tentatively set as a day for lawyers to review documents with paperwork to be signed today in a pre-closing meeting. If that tentative schedule holds, Burns said that he expected everything to be fully funded by Wednesday, October 19, which would allow the defeasance of the bonds. The sale could be final by late next week.



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