|By Billy Davis
Twelve months into 2005, Panola voters have elected two new mayors and a new sheriff, watched a municipal election end up in court, and seen a shake-up among the Panola County Board of Supervisors.
In the city of Batesville, a hospital got sold, a plant got expanded, the new mayor’s salary went down – then back up – and Batesville police officers got a hoped-for raise.
In the city’s elections, Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey began a four-year term this summer after comfortable wins in the Democratic primary and general election.
Batesville voters also elected Teddy Morrow as alderman-at-large, the first change in that office in 20 years.
Elsewhere in the city, voters returned four incumbents to office: Ward 1 Alderman Bill Dugger, Ward 2 Alderman Rufus Manley, Ward 3 Alderman James Yelton, and Ward 4 Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders.
A year that began with incumbents and candidates jumping into municipal races is ending with one of them recovering from a stroke.
Alderman James Yelton, 78, suffered a stroke December 1 while at the Hardee’s restaurant in Batesville. He is now recovering and undergoing therapy.
Known for his penny-pinching oversight of taxpayers’ dollars, Yelton has served nearly two decades in office. Ward 3 voters returned him to his alderman’s seat again in May.
"James has a good mathematical mind and he’s a good businessman, so we’re missing him a lot," said Autrey.
Yelton was elected vice-mayor this year on a 3-2 vote by the board of aldermen, but city officials may have to vote on a new vice-mayor in the near future if his recovery is slow.
"We hope that’s an issue we don’t have to take up," the mayor said. "We hope he comes back soon."
"I don’t know about a timetable or anything but I sure hope he comes back soon," said Alderman Bill Dugger.
after a shaky start
Autrey is now five months into his first term as Batesville mayor. He came into office with a thin political resume – he had never held public office – but enjoyed overwhelming wins in the party primary and general election.
Before Autrey was sworn in as mayor, he toured the city with outgoing Mayor Bobby Baker.
Autrey had nearly swiped Baker’s long-held office four years earlier, and the relationship between the political newcomer and the veteran politician, as well as their defenders and detractors, had been icy ever since.
In fact, after Autrey’s election and prior to that tour around the city, aldermen Pounders, Yelton, Manley and then-Alderman-at-Large Hudson Still voted to set the mayor-elect’s annual salary at $19,500, slashing it from Baker’s final salary of $56,300.
After Autrey was sworn into office, however, the aldermen eventually voted to raise the mayor’s salary to $40,000 amid an uproar from the community. A similar vote had failed days earlier despite a motion from Morrow and a second from Dugger.
A vote to elect Yelton vice-mayor also occurred amid similar votes and icy conditions among the aldermen.
According to Autrey, the car ride with Baker’s helped build bridges with the outgoing mayor’s allies.
"Mr. Baker told me, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ and we rode over the entire city and he pointed things out and suggested things," Autrey recalled. "When we got out of the car, he threw me the keys and told me to call him if I ever have any questions."
Those first days of a new administration have changed for the better, city officials now say.
"It was kind of shaky because of the vote on the mayor’s salary and vice-mayor, but everything’s running smooth now," Morrow said.
"I feel like the new mayor is working real hard and has learned how city government works, and Teddy has jumped right in and is doing a good job, too," Pounders said.
Taking out the
Since taking office, Autrey said he is overseeing the city’s $3 million payroll and 160 employees like a careful, calculating businessman.
Autrey said he has also made progress on the city’s "overhead," which, of course, is taxpayers’ money.
"So far, by taking a close look at how the city operates, we’ve saved $30,000 to $50,000 a year in electricity and $5,000 to $7,000 in phone bills," the mayor said.
While Autrey’s boasting stopped short of specific examples, Alderman-at-large Teddy Morrow said the mayor personally oversaw improvements to the former Panola Mills building that eventually saved the city money in electrical costs.
The city owns the entire building but operates only a small office there.
"We were basically cooling half the building and using only the office," Morrow said. "The mayor took that on himself and got it straightened out."
Like Autrey, Morrow is also a newcomer to politics and municipal government. He won the alderman-at-large seat after defeating radio station owner
J. Boyd Ingram in a runoff and Ed Allen in the general election.
"I attend a lot of meetings and don’t say anything," said Morrow, who turned 36 last week. "I just listen because I’m still learning."
Morrow is also Batesville’s youngest city official, second behind Autrey, who is 57.
Morrow owns the Stubbs and Williams department stores on the Downtown Square, and recently opened an antique store as well.
With his livelihood tied into the success of downtown, Morrow said his toughest vote this year was a $10,000 budget cut to the Batesville Main Street Program, which exists to revitalize the downtown area.
"It was a tough vote for me because I didn’t want to do it," Morrow said, "but the budget was tight and we had to cut something."
A vote Morrow says he was proud to cast is the pay raises for Batesville police officers, which boosted their yearly salaries by $3,600.
City wishes for
the new year
In the coming year, Autrey said, Batesville residents will see work begin on street repair and paving, and progress being made on bringing an animal shelter to the city. (See story, page A7).
While Dugger and Pounders said they want street repairs in the coming year, both cautioned that the city’s budget will be tight in 2006.
"Sometimes things happen, like the repair of the parking lot at the civic center," Dugger said. "The money just doesn’t grow on trees."
Manley said the animal shelter is likely for the coming year while the street repairs are possible.
"I don’t know about the streets because that’s according to the money we have budgeted," Manley said. "It would be nice if we could (fix the streets) because every year we keep putting it off and putting it off."
Also in the new year, Morrow said he hopes the board of aldermen takes a long, hard look at the Batesville Civic Center and figures out a way to make the facility break even.
Dugger said he, too, hopes to see progress made on making the civic center an asset to the city.
"I was opposed to it at the beginning because I didn’t feel it was a necessity, but now I certainly want it to work," Dugger said. "If we look into the future, one day there’ll come a time when everybody’s grateful that we’ve got it and glad it was built."
"We basically don’t expect it to make any money for five to seven years," said Manley. "Until then, if it can just take care of itself, that would be good."