Headlines – 7/28/2006

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 28, 2006

The Panolian: HEADLINES – July 28, 2006

  From the 7/28/06 issue of The Panolian   –   

Making hay hard with lots of shining sun, no rainfall
By Billy Davis

A near-rainless summer is punishing Panola County agriculture, affecting farmers dependent on row crops as well as cattlemen who are depending on a good cutting of hay.

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Nearly two-thirds of pasture and hay land in Mississippi is in poor or very poor condition due to drought conditions, and Panola County cattlemen are feeling the affects.

Harold McCurdy said he needs 250 to 300 hay bales to feed his 100 cattle this winter. He has 57 bales so far after a summer cutting that produced roughly half of what he needs.

"Last year we cut hay the first of June and this year we cut it the end of June to give it more time," McCurdy said. "We still got half of what we got last year."

A survey conducted in mid-July by the National Agricultural Statistic Service put 60 percent of Mississippi in the "poor or very poor" category.

"The same conditions can be found in 83 percent of Alabama pastures, 63 percent in Texas and 61 percent in Oklahoma," reads a news release from Miss. State University, which cited the survey in its monthly "crop news" newsletter.

Many farmers with non-irrigated crops in the field are watching their crops dry up, said Kimball Billingsley, executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency.

Billingsley rattled off a list of crops – corn, cotton and soybeans – that are in danger on "dry land" farms, meaning fields that don’t rely on irrigation to survive.

"Cotton is doing okay but is critical, and soybeans have a chance but they need a rain soon," Billingsley said. "It’s too late for corn."

The dry spell is the worst in Panola County in six or seven years, said cattleman Joe Dettor, who is rotating his cattle to fresh pasture every weekend.

"I usually move ’em every 20 or 30 days," Dettor said.

Like McCurdy, Dettor said his recent cutting of hay amounted to half of last year’s cutting.

"I’ve talked to some folks who say they will end up having to buy hay, and that will sure hurt," Dettor said. "It was tough last year, but everybody is saying this year is worse."

Panola County was two to four inches below its average rainfall in June, and few raindrops have fallen since then to make a difference.

McCurdy said rain that fell on Panola County Wednesday night barely made a dent in the dusty ground.

"I was in Batesville when it hit, and I didn’t even turn on my windshield wipers," he said.

Thunderstorms were in the forecast for today.

Batesville topped larger cities in June tax returns
By Rupert Howell

Batesville is a good place to do business according to sales tax figures used to gauge retail trade within a municipality.

According to State Tax Commission figures, Batesville did almost as much or more retail business as the larger municipalities of Clarksdale, Greenwood and Grenada.

The seven percent sales tax paid by consumers is reported and paid to the State Tax Commission which returns approximately 20 percent to the municipality in which it was collected.

Clarksdale received $237,745 while Grenada received $339,124 and Greenwood received $322,917 during the month of June.

The City of Batesville received a check for $325,829 that represented the city?s share of sales tax, an increase of 8.5 percent over last June. During the state?s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, the City of Batesville received a total of $3,511,810 for its share of sales tax, an increase of 4.4 percent over the previous fiscal year. Statewide figures were up 13 percent for the year.

The city also received $58,248 via a tourism and economic development tax which levies a three percent tax on hotel and motel rooms and restaurant food. That figure was down 11 percent from the previous June. The total collected for the city during the fiscal year through the three percent tax was $729,630, down three percent compared to the previous fiscal year.

Other local municipalities received sales tax reimbursement checks in the following amounts during June 2006 and June 2005, respectively:

     Charleston – $26,649 and $26,083;
     Como – $16,143 and $13,341;
     Courtland – $1,590 and $1,394;
     Crenshaw – $3,332 and $3,336;
     Crowder – $925 and $1,356;
     Lambert – $2,911 and $2,716;
     Marks – $21,455 and $24,249;
     Oakland – $3,515 and $2,987;
     Oxford – $429,411 and $401,079;
     Pope – $2,089 and $1,912;
     Sardis – $22,525 and $21,197;
     Senatobia – $166,407 and $163,961 and
     Water Valley – $37,684 and $35,830.

Year-to-date figures indicate the state returned approximately $45,000,000 more to municipalities over the amount returned during the previous fiscal year.

Thieves hit Dana plant, Part 2
By Billy Davis

Even as Panola County supervisors hope to turn the empty Dana plant in Crenshaw into a new industry, copper thieves have struck the facility – again.

Sheriff Hugh "Shot" Bright formally announced the weekend theft to county supervisors Tuesday, saying the department is "on the trail" of at least one suspect. Bright was joined by investigators Mark Whitten and Albert Perkins, who are investigating the theft.

The apparent damage to the facility comes as supervisors are set to transfer ownership next Monday, putting the plant in the hands of Rolando Foods.

"I think whoever did this needs to be put in jail and the key thrown away," Supervisor Robert Avant later told The Panolian, lamenting the damage to Crenshaw’s only industrial site.

Sheriff’s investigators traced the first theft to an unnamed "chief suspect" who fled the state after earning $4,000 from the sale of the copper materials.

The plant is easy pickings for thieves since a 75-foot section of the six-foot-high, barbed wire fence is missing and some entry gates are unlocked, Bright and the investigators told supervisors Tuesday.

Despite some rumblings from his colleagues over who bears the cost, Avant asked Bright to pursue a price quote on replacing the fence, saying the county should pay for security.

"I thought the company was fixing the fence," replied County Administrator David Chandler.

"I’m looking at the expenses they have because of the damage," Avant replied. "It’s still our fence and our building."

Supervisors Jerry Perkins and Bubba Waldrup also voiced concern with spending money on the plant, which will likely be in new hands next week.

"Surely they don’t expect us to replace everything," Perkins said.

SP football tickets on sale
     Cathy Mathews fills out a check Wednesday to buy season tickets for South Panola football. Mathews was among the first to purchase tickets to the Tiger’s home football games. The football season opens August 25 in Clarksdale. The first home game is September 1.

     Batesville firefighter William Stewart helps demonstrate to Christian Gleaton (left) and Malika Gleaton how to properly use a water hose to douse a fire. This activity was part of the Fire Safety Challenge at the Tri-Lakes Behavioral Center located on the west campus.
Hood: Como trials ‘us doing our job’
By Billy Davis

Although a state investigation into election fraud in Como flopped in court, state Attorney General Jim Hood said this week he has no regrets about pursuing the case.

"If we have a report of election fraud anywhere in the state, we’re going to pursue it. That’s us doing our job," Hood said Monday in a phone interview from Jackson.

Spurred by a flurry of post-election complaints last May, an investigator came to Panola County and apparently returned to Jackson with enough evidence to seek indictments stemming from the municipal election.

The first indictment brought voter fraud charges against Police Chief Cleve Gale and City Clerk Nedra Dandridge, but both defendants walked out of court after Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker dismissed the charges against them.

Reached after the court case, Gale called the charges "embarrassing."

A week later, two more defendants who had been indicted for bribery, Raymond D. Boyce and Jessie Barnett, were found not guilty on charges that they paid voters to cast a ballot for Como Mayor Azria "Bobby" Lewers.

In court, the state’s bribery case against Boyce and Barnett fell apart in front of jurors after some witnesses contradicted themselves and two others seemingly changed their testimony.

According to Hood, some of the state’s key witnesses were likely intimidated by the courtroom and witness stand, and got their words turned around during cross-examination.

"It’s very difficult when you’re on the witness stand and being cross-examined by a good defense attorney," said Hood. "I’ve seen some very professional people get tongue-tied."

Regarding the two bribery witnesses who seemingly changed their testimony, Hood would not rule out intimidation by more than a courtroom.

"It could be a case of going up against politically powerful people," Hood said. "It’s probably a combination of the two."

The municipal elections in Como devolved into controversy last year even before Como voters cast ballots in a May primary election and returned two weeks later for a run-off election. As the votes were being cast, partisans exchanged insults and tussled outside the town’s only polling place, the Como Police Department.

Outside the police station, freelance reporter Donna Taylor caused a stir with a video camera that eventually captured footage of Gale driving a voter to the poll in his patrol car. The video footage found its way to a TV news station in Memphis.

A Como poll worker who sat through both elections e-mailed state legislators about the events, writing that "police cars were bringing in voters to the polls to the vote and the majority of absentee voters were bribed, threaten(ed) and some of their ballots were voted for them at City Hall."

The e-mailed letter, dated May 26, eventually became evidence for the attorney general’s office.

Reached by The Panolian last week, the poll worker, who requested anonymity, did not realize the e-mailed letter and others sent from other upset Como residents had become part of the state’s case.

The biggest controversy of last summer’s election was an apparent two-time victory of mayoral challenger Judy Sumner, who edged past Lewers in a three-way primary and later a run-off.

Sumner had never been elected to office before, but the political newcomer, who is white, defeated third-term Mayor Lewers, who is black, in a majority-black town.

Sumner had campaigned on a theme that Como citizens wanted change in mayoral leadership.

Sumner’s win was short-lived, however, after the Como Democratic Election Commission gave Lewers the final victory after 12 ballots rejected by poll workers were counted by the election commission. All 12 votes went to the incumbent mayor.

Asked for an explanation, commission chairman Etta Gale told The Panolian last year that the ballots had been "mishandled" by the poll workers.

According to Hood, the attorney general’s office is routinely flooded with complaints of voter fraud, but the Panola County case showed promise due to the witness interviews.

"The prosecutor sat down at their kitchen table and asked, ‘Is this what you said?’ and they said, ‘Yes,’" said Hood. "Witnesses make all the difference in the world."

Jobs gamble in Crenshaw could be official after Monday meeting
By Billy Davis

Panola County supervisors have inched closer to bringing Maryland-based Rolando Foods to Panola County after tweaking an agreement between the two parties, moving now toward a title transfer next week.

Nodding their approval during a recess meeting Tuesday, the five-man board agreed to hand over the Dana plant at a meeting set for 3 p.m. next Monday at the Batesville courthouse.

"We will be transferring the title from the county to Rolando Foods," District 2 Supervisor Robert Avant announced after the meeting.

During the same meeting, Avant asked board attorney Bill McKenzie to make changes to an earlier agreement, namely the amount of financing Rolando can seek and the company’s payoff of a lien on the property.

Rolando Foods is seeking to move its food production operation to Crenshaw, where the county owns the former Dana plant, but wants ownership of the facility as part of the move.

Supervisors agreed Tuesday that the county will pay the lien instead of Rolando, using an insurance payment to send a check for $75,803 to the federal Economic Development Administration. About $86,000 in insurance money is coming to the county after the facility was stripped by thieves for its copper wiring.

The Crenshaw facility was hit again by copper thieves, this time over the July 22 weekend, supervisors learned Tuesday from Sheriff Hugh "Shot" Bright and department investigators. (See story, page A1).

Regarding the financing, supervisors agreed that Rolando can seek $3.5 million instead of the agreed-to amount of $4.5 million. The amount is important because it symbolizes the company’s financial strength and its commitment to moving to Panola County.

Avant, who is president of the board, urged his colleagues Tuesday to accept the lower commitment amount as well a county payoff of the lien.

Avant has urged his colleagues to support his dealings with Rolando and its CEO, Roland Butler, acknowledging that the county is gambling the building on promised new jobs for Crenshaw.

The isolated community, which Avant represents, is situated in northwest Panola County on the Quitman County line. The Dana plant was the sole source of industrial jobs until it closed its doors more than a year ago.

Rolando’s plan to make Panola County home has found a receptive ear at the Panola Partnership. CEO Sonny Simmons has met with Rolando in past weeks and reported to supervisors that he feels positive about its plan.

"Sonny said they have made every commitment we’ve asked of them," Avant told supervisors Tuesday.

"He feels pretty good about it," agreed County Administrator David Chandler.

Board attorney Bill McKenzie urged Avant and the other supervisors Tuesday to request a commitment letter from Rolando’s financier prior to the title handover next week.

"They should come in here with that in hand," McKenzie said.

Avant said Simmons likely has possession of such paperwork and can bring it to next week’s meeting.


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