Headlines – 1/6/2006

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 6, 2006

The Panolian: HEADLINES – January 6, 2006

  From the 1/6/06 issue of The Panolian       

Two plead guilty after
crystal meth bust, fire
By Billy Davis

Two Batesville men pleaded guilty in circuit court Thursday morning to felony charges related to crystal meth.

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Lloyd Turner, 46, and Ross Tittle Jr., 43, each pleaded guilty to one count of possession of meth precursors and one count of possession of meth.

Circuit court Judge Ann Lamar accepted the pleas during "plea day" at the county courthouse in Batesville.

Sentencing was scheduled by Lamar for 9 a.m. Friday, January 20, in the same Batesville courtroom.

The pleas came six months after a meth lab explosion destroyed the defendants’ Westmoreland Heights home and severely burned Tittle.

Law enforcement officers found crystal meth in the home after the explosion, leading to the possession charge, Assistant District Attorney Robert Kelly told the court Thursday.

Earlier in the year, Batesville police arrested the pair February 2 near Wal-Mart, charging them with buying three products that are precursors for the manufacture of meth.

Turner was represented in court by public defender David Walker.

Tittle was represented by public defender Clay Vanderburg.

During the hearing, Lamar explained that the possession charge carries a minimum of two years in prison with a maximum of eight years.

No minimum sentence is set for the charge of precursors, she said, but the maximum sentence is 30 years.

The plea appearance Thursday was an "open plea," meaning the district attorney and the defense attorneys did not agree to a requested sentence.

In a separate hearing, Lamar refused Turner’s request that Walker represent him without private payment.

"I’m working at an antique shop with a take-home salary of $179 a week," Turner told Lamar, declaring himself indigent before the court.

"I don’t think you can hire an attorney, but you can compensate the public defender with some amount of money," Lamar replied.

State senate kicks off with seat belt law, pay raise bill
By Billy Davis

State senators in Jackson have started their January session with a "bang" after passing important legislation this week, Sen. Nolan Mettetal said Thursday from the state capital.

In recent days, he said, state senators voted for a pay raise for state employees and voted to tighten the state’s seat belt laws.

"We’re off to a mighty good start," said Mettetal, speaking to the newspaper from the capital.

Senate Bill 2086, which now goes to the House, makes seat belt violations a "primary offense" instead of a "secondary offense," meaning law enforcement officers can write ticket solely for a seat belt violation.

Mettetal noted that the House "killed" the bill last year and may do so again this year.

"Mississippi is next to last in seatbelt usage in the United States, and clearly that’s a tremendous safety hazard," said Mettetal, a Democrat from Sardis.

Mettetal said he was also pleased that Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck announced this week that she may support a 50-cent hike in cigarette taxes. The new revenue should go to education, he said.

"I’ve been on record supporting a 50-cent tax hike, even before the session started last year," Mettetal said.

Tuck, a Republican, has said in press reports that she wants to offset any new revenue with other tax cuts.

Mettetal said he disagreed with that suggestion. "We need all the revenue we can get," he said.

Jailer, deputies hired by sheriff
By Billy Davis

A jail administrator and a sheriff’s deputy are the latest hires at the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, where Sheriff Hugh "Shot" Bright continues to reorganize the department following his win in November.

Bright announced the newest batch of hirings at the board of supervisors "first Monday" meeting in Sardis, which was held Tuesday due to the New Year’s holiday.

County supervisors unanimously approved the hiring requests.

The new jail administrator is James R. "Bobby" Meek, who starts with a monthly salary of $3,000.

Bright also requested and received a $300 monthly pay raise for 10-year veteran jailer Edward Dickson, whom Bright has appointed assistant jail administrator. The raise boosts Dickson’s monthly salary to $2,365.

"What I’m trying to do is get three jailers on the night shift. I’ve already got three on the day shift," Bright told supervisors regarding his plans.

Other department hirings included:

Lisa Mills, secretary for the investigation division, at $1,995 monthly;
Former part-time sheriff’s deputy Tyler Mills, who will start full-time work at $1,765. His salary will jump to $1,965 when he completes the police academy, Bright said;
Kelvin Taylor, who is being re-hired as a sheriff’s deputy at $1,965 a month;
Carlton Hays III, who is being reinstated as a sheriff’s deputy after quitting the department in December.

After the meeting, Bright acknowledged the hiring of Taylor and Mills fills two new deputy slots he sought and got in recent weeks, bringing to 12 the department’s full-time manpower.

On a related jail matter, supervisors voted unanimously to allow a trial run for a new insurance policy for jail inmates.

County Administrator David Chandler recommended a three-month trial for Benefit Ventures, which will charge the county $27.50 a month per inmate for medical, dental, vision and pharmacy coverage.

Supervisors approve vehicle for county coroner’s office
By Billy Davis

Panola County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to allow county coroner Gracie Grant-Gulledge to proceed with her request to purchase a van and equipment for her office.

The van purchase from Tupelo, a decal job, and equipment at the state contract price will cost the county $17,710, the coroner told supervisors at their "first Monday" meeting, which was held Tuesday in Sardis.

The board barely met its quorum with supervisors Robert Avant, Jerry Perkins and Mack Benson present.

Supervisor Bubba Waldrup is out of town due to a family illness while Supervisor James Birge is undergoing surgery this week for an aneurism.

The 3-0 board vote ended a disagreement between Gulledge and Batesville funeral home director Jerry Cooley, who was transporting bodies to Jackson for autopsies for a contract fee of $405 per body.

Cooley had appealed to county supervisors in recent weeks to continue using him for the autopsy transport service.

Also in previous weeks, Gulledge has said the county purchase would save taxpayers’ money by putting the work in county hands at $120 per trip.

Before voting for the purchase, District 2 Supervisor Robert Avant peppered Gulledge with questions about the costs, wondering aloud if the savings were "too good to be true."

Avant also reminded the board that former coroner Donna Stevens had made similar requests that were turned down by supervisors. Gulledge defeated Stevens for the coroner’s office.

District 4 Supervisor Jerry Perkins also questioned the apparent low price of the van, but County Administrator David Chandler vouched for the price.
"There’s no doubt you’ve done your homework," Perkins told Gulledge, referring to facts and figures she brought to defend her request.

Perkins also said he was surprised to learn that the coroner’s office has no means to transport bodies from the scene of a death to the morgue.

"We depend on the ambulance service or the funeral homes for that," Gulledge replied, saying the van would be used for that purpose, too.

Gulledge said those who would transport bodies for autopsy are deputy coroners Charles Ray and Donna Tisdale, sheriff’s deputy Justin Maples and her husband, Chris Gulledge.

In other board business:
Supervisors voted to pay a $566 TVEPA bill totalling two months’ of electrical service for the Batesville Boys and Girls Club.
     County Administrator David Chandler presented the bill to supervisors, relaying the opinion of City of Batesville officials that the board should pay the bill since the county has trailed the city in contributing funds to the club.
     "I recommend we pay it since it’s for the kids," Avant told supervisors.
Board attorney Bill McKenzie delivered an "FYI" to supervisors that county constables in the state will be required to give up 11 percent of their gross fees for the state’s public employee retirement fund.
     The change comes after a state law took effect January 1, McKenzie said.
     "I’m just telling you in case you hear from our constables," the attorney said. "If they don’t like it, they can take it up with the legislature."
     Panola County’s constables are Raye Hawkins and Cleve Gale.
Sheriff Hugh "Shot" Bright informed supervisors that the sheriff’s department will auction vehicles and other equipment in a county auction, most likely in the spring, to be held at the jail on Hwy. 35 N.
     Some county road department equipment will also be included in the auction, said county road manager Lygunnah Bean.
Supervisors announced they will attend a state supervisors mid-winter conference later in the month.
     Supervisors Robert Avant and Jerry Perkins will also attend a winter conference February 8-10 hosted by the Mississippi Development Authority.
Space in old school building granted; worship group, Heflin House get rooms
By Jason C. Mattox

Leases at the old Sardis High School building were discussed for the third consecutive meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Aldermen voted to allow the use of two rooms in the building –  one without a lease.

Polly Gordon, representing the Heflin House Museum, appeared before the board to get clarification on the museum’s space in the building.

"When we began rehabbing the Heflin House, we were allowed to store our furniture in the old school building," she said. "Once the rehab work was finished, we had more furnishings than we could fit in the house.

"At that time we were allowed to continue using our storage area in the school," she added. "We did not have a lease, but we want to keep storing our furnishings there. If we need to sign a lease, we will do so."

Gordon explained that the Heflin House was planning to begin construction on a new building behind the museum that would display the items presently in storage.

"We are hoping to have that new building up in the summer," she said. "That is our plan. We just need to know if we can continue to store our furnishings there until it is completed."

Aldermen agreed to allow the museum to continue storing items in the old school.

"That stuff is all really old, and we don’t want them to have to move it and possibly damage it," Mayor Alvis "Rusty" Dye said.

Another space was rented to Robert Nolan who represents a group of non-denominational Christians.

"There are about 25 of us," he said. "We just want a space where we can hold praise and worship services other than in my home."

Nolan said the group would be responsible for all utilities and would sign the city’s standard lease for space in the building.

Under the terms of that lease, the renter is required to hold one fundraiser per year with all money going towards the upkeep of the building.

McCollum reports on cleanup
By John Howell Sr.

Over 500 junked vehicles have been removed from Batesville streets and yards since the Code Enforcement Office started issuing citations, code enforcement officer John McCollum told aldermen Tuesday.

McCollum said that when the program began July, 2003, he was frequently "cussed" by the citation recipients.

"I go back now and they tell me they’re glad they got their yard back," McCollum said.

The code enforcement officers distributed to city officials breakdowns by year of violations issued, vehicles removed from the city and citations for junk other than vehicles.

During the two and one-half years, 279 citations were issued and 538 vehicles were removed, according to McCollum’s figures. Many of the vehicles were sold or hauled away. Some were tagged, inspected and restored to legal status, he said.

Tri-Lakes re-opens clinic in memory of nurse practitioner
     Sardis Mayor Alvis "Rusty" Dye (left) greets Tri-Lakes Medical Center administrator Ray Shoemaker as the Richard Hartig Primary Care Center is opened in Sardis.
     A host of well-wishers, hospital personnel and civic representatives, including Mary Troxler and Kristen Cardwell (back left and right), attended a ribbon cutting at the clinic Tuesday. See story, page A3.
By John Howell Sr.

Tri-Lakes Medical Center re-opened Sardis’ Primary Care Clinic Tuesday as the Richard Hartig Primary Care Clinic.

Hartig, the family nurse practitioner who founded the clinic at 111 West Lee Street, died August 27, 2005.

Mayor Alvis "Rusty" Dye opened the Richard Hartig Primary Care Clinic Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by local business people, representatives of the Sardis Chamber of Commerce, the Panola Partnership and Tri-Lakes.

Nurse Practitioner Linda Troy will see patients at the clinic assisted by lab technician Kristen Cardwell.

"We’re all real pleased," said Hartig’s widow, Dr. Peggy Hartig. "Richard knew Linda and liked her style," she added.

Patient records from Hartig’s practice remain at the clinic.

Tri-Lakes officials said that Troy would be seeing patients in the facility no later than Monday.

"It’s a lot of people interested in coming back," said Sardis resident Ira Leverson, who said that he had been driving out-of-town from treatment of his back since Hartig’s death.

Early Como results: Walton new alderman-at-large by 30 ballots
By Donna Taylor

Un-official results of the Como alderman-at-large race held Tuesday show John Walton as the winner with 300 votes, compared to 270 votes for Dr. Forster Ruhl.

The race had been mired in legal wrangling since Ruhl successfully challenged the outcome of the June election, which also declared Walton the winner.

Judy Gravatt, who worked the polls on Tuesday, provided the unofficial vote count. Gravatt said there are still affidavit ballots to be counted.

The unofficial breakdown provided by Gravatt showed votes by wards as follows:

– Ward 1 – Ruhl 33, Walton 30
– Ward 2 – Ruhl 164, Walton 55;
– Ward 3 – Ruhl 43, Walton 113;
– Ward 4 – Ruhl 30, Walton 102.

The Secretary of State’s office had representative Willie Allen monitoring the election and Panola County deputies routinely patrolled the area.

Walton had previously been certified as the winner of the summer municipal election when he edged Ruhl out by a handful of votes.

Ruhl challenged the results and Circuit Court Judge Sharon Aycock threw out the election and called for a special election.

In that ruling, Judge Aycock declared that 38 absentee ballots that were cast outside of the city clerk’s office were not legal.

Aldermen approve new deal with county drug task force
By John Howell Sr.

Batesville aldermen have approved a new inter-local agreement for participation in the Panola Narcotics Task Force.

Aldermen in a December meeting took action to end the existing agreement. The newly-approved document now needs approval from the City of Sardis and Panola County.

Police Chief Gerald Legge Jr. said the changes include raising the funding level provided to $70,000 this year, the amount that was approved by aldermen for their 2006 budget approved in September.

Another change places the task force under the supervision of the sheriff.

"He’s the one who has jurisdiction over the whole county," Legge said. The old agreement placed the supervision under a board consisting of the chiefs of police and the sheriff.

Another change allows task force headquarters to be located anywhere in the county. The headquarters had formerly been limited to Batesville, Legge said.

"I think they’ve got a place lined up in Sardis," for the headquarters, the police chief said.

Another change would allow the task force to retain proceeds from confiscations until its budget needs are met. Such proceeds above needs would be distributed among participating jurisdictions, Legge said.

The final change would make the task force’s budget year consistent with the city’s fiscal year, Legge said.

In other police department business, Legge received aldermen approval to:

Sign documents to accept a Justice Assistance Grant for $1,930 to use for the purchase of a mobile video system for a patrol car. The system costs $3,745, the police chief said;
Attend training mandated for chiefs of police appointed after July 1, 2004.
Weekend of activities will honor memory of Dr. King
By Rita Howell

Noted Memphis preacher and author Dr. Fred C. Lofton will be the featured speaker at local Dr. Martin Luther King Day commemoration services planned for Monday, January 16 to culminate a weekend of activities slated to honor the memory of the civil rights leader.

The Martin Luther King Commemorative Committee, headed by local pastor Zannie Leland, is coordinating efforts by the South Panola High School Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y Clubs and the Sardis District Ministerial Alliance to plan a series of events to appeal to all ages as they encourage Panola Countians to "remember, celebrate and act" in honor of Dr. King.

A basketball jamboree is planned on Friday, January 13 at the Batesville Intermediate gym. Dennis Hoskins is directing this activity. He can be reached at 578-7309 for more information.

On Saturday, January 14, a banquet will recognize African-American businesses in Panola County. The event will begin at 6 p.m. at the Patton Lane Community Center. Rufus Manley is coordinating this event. He can be reached at 563-0328 for more information.

A musical program will commemorate Dr. King’s work on Sunday, January 15 at the Sardis District Association Building in Sardis at 6 p.m. For more information about this program, contact Rhonda Leland at 654-0420.

The local King Day observance will begin with a prayer breakfast for clergy and community leaders at Mt. Zion Baptist Church at 7 a.m. The breakfast and prayer service are hosted by the Sardis District Ministerial Alliance.

Church and community groups and individuals are invited to participate in the annual commemorative march from Mt. Zion to Batesville Intermediate School. The group will assemble at 9 a.m. and the march will begin at 10 a.m. Mt. Zion Church is located at the corner of Panola Ave. and Hoskins Rd.

It was the site of a visit by Dr. King in 1968.

"We are inviting all city and county officials, ministers, and individuals of all denominations and races to participate in this historic event," the Rev. Zannie Leland said.

He noted the theme: "A day on… not a day off."

Participating groups are asked to prepare banners conveying the theme and identifying themselves. The largest group will be recognized.

Last year, several hundred people participated.

When the group arrives at the Batesville Intermediate School auditorium, they will hear from Dr. Lofton, a Memphis pastor and civil rights leader who served as an aide to Dr. King.

For more information about the commemoration service or any of the events, contact Leland at 563-3020.

Board denies door-swinging variance
By John Howell Sr.

City of Batesville officials gave Tommy Wells until February 7 to alter and bring into fire code compliance a recently completed chapel addition at Wells Funeral Home.

Wells attended the Tuesday, January 3 meeting of the Batesville Mayor and Board of Aldermen and requested a variance that would allow his building to remain as constructed.

Officials of the Batesville Fire Department and City Code Enforcement office had cited the facility because its doors open to the inside in violation of the International Building Code.

Wells said that he had submitted the architect’s plans for the building in February. The plans, which were approved by the city, stipulated that the doors open to the outside. Wells told the mayor and aldermen that he changed the direction of the doors’ opening based on his vision of how the facility should appear. Wells said that the facility was inspected by the city five times and that he was only notified of its non-compliance at the final stages of construction after the doors had been installed, a position that fire department officials disputed.

"Joe (fire inspector Joe Warren) inspected on August 8, 2005, and you signed it," Fire Chief Tim Taylor told Wells. He showed Wells an inspection report that noted the doors opened the wrong way.
Wells disagreed with the timing of his notification.

Ward 2 Alderman Rufus Manley pressed Wells with questions about how long he had known his building was not in compliance.

City officials discussed whether the city could ultimately be held blameless. City attorney Colmon Mitchell said that although Wells could indemnify the city against liability, the agreement would not bind a third party.

"…If there was ever a problem and life was lost, I couldn’t live with that," Ward 1 Alderman Bill Dugger said.

"The fire code, … that’s where the problem comes in for me," Alderman-at-Large Teddy Morrow said.

After a motion by Ward 4 Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders to allow the variance died for lack of a second, Manley’s motion to deny the variance but to extend the deadline until the February date passed unanimously.

"I did wrong, but I feel that I was treated unfairly," Wells said later.

Loden seeks sign variance before Feb. 1 fee increase
By John Howell Sr.

Developer Woody Loden III spoke to city officials Tuesday seeking a variance that would permit an additional sign at his Eagle Crest Shopping Center.

The Batesville mayor and aldermen voted to declare a moratorium on variances in November to allow the city’s Code Enforcement Department to examine and modify existing standards.

The moratorium is scheduled to expire at the beginning of February when a new fee schedule will increase commercial permit fees from $100 to $500.

Loden told city officials that he needed to put up a sign for Quiznos restaurant.

Code Enforcement Office administrator Pam Comer said that the shopping center had already been granted variances to allow the quantity and size of the signs now placed there.

"He let some of the bigger ones have bigger signs," Comer said. She explained that even after revision of the city’s policy, Loden might still need a variance.

Mayor Jerry Autrey asked Loden if he thought some of the businesses in the shopping center would be willing to reduce the size of their signs to make room for the newcomers.

"I’ll let you go with me to ask them," Loden replied.

"I never dreamed it would fill up, but it’s filled up," Loden said. "Batesville has always been business friendly," he added.

Alderman Bill Dugger has been instrumental in the city’s move to declare the moratorium on variances. Dugger has said that he questions the logic of setting standards for signs and other construction if aldermen are constantly making exceptions.

"It got to the point that it’s out of control," Dugger said.

Aldermen took no action on Loden’s request either to grant the variance or accept his $100 permit fee before the price goes up February 1.

"Let me know if you want me to go with you to talk with those people," the mayor said as Loden left the room.



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