| By Billy Davis
Over the course of two budget meetings, Panola County Administrator David Chandler repeated comments he made a year ago: the growth in the county’s tax base is slowing.
The county administrator made similar comments during last year’s budget meetings, blaming the slowdown on a growing number of over-65 and disabled citizens, who receive a greatly reduced tax bill, and also the depreciation of mobile homes.
Panola County’s southern end is actually growing at a steady clip, managing six-percent growth in total assessed value over the last fiscal year. The trouble is and has been in north Panola County, where county tax figures show a decrease in total assessed value.
The Panola County Board of Supervisors uses the county’s total assessed value to fund county government. The five-man board depends on steady growth on tax rolls for additional revenue, which in past years – and this year – has allowed supervisors to keep millage rates from rising.
Panola is roughly divided between north and south by the Tallahatchie River, which shoots southwest from Sardis Lake, snakes its way across the county and falls south to Tallahatchie County.
The tax collector/tax assessor’s office uses the county’s two judicial districts, the First in the north and the Second in the south, in its assessments of north and south. The dividing line roughly follows the Tallahatchie River, though the south part includes areas north of the river in the Barnacre, Macedonia and Curtis communities.
Figures provided by the tax assessor’s office show north Panola county’s assessed value dropped from $54.7 million in 2005 to $54.4 million in 2006, a difference of $348,000, while south Panola County increased about $2.6 million – from $143,421 million to $146,029 million – over the past fiscal year.
South Panola and North Panola school districts also use the river as a divider, though the Curtis community, the Barnacre Road area, and southwest Panola County are located in the South Panola School District.
Chandler told supervisors that the county grew at an overall rate of 1.6 percent during the current fiscal year, later clarifying that the loss in the "north end" undercut the steady growth in the "south end."
"I’ve been saying it on and off for six or seven years," Chandler told The Panolian last week. "If the county doesn’t start operating as a unit…It’s like this: what affects the north affects the south."
In north Panola County, the only long-term answer to taxable growth is good-paying industrial jobs, said District 2 Supervisor Robert Avant.
"It’s all about job creation," Avant said, "but you’ve got to have decent schools, healthcare and recreation, and we’re lacking all those things."
Avant also blames north Panola County’s decline on the large number of mobile homes, which depreciate in value similar to automobiles.
An assessment chart provided by the tax assessor’s office, which is prepared by the state tax commission, shows a 2007 single-wide mobile home is assessed at $5,215 while a 1996 model is assessed at $4,666, a value difference of $549. A 1997 model is assessed at $1,943, a difference from a new ?07 model of $3,272.
A conventional home, meanwhile, typically increases in value over time, creating value and equity for the owner.
"A mobile home is destructive," Avant said. "It’s a quick fix, but it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a major wound."
Gene Nichols, co-owner of Champion Home Center in Como, pointed out that mobile home buyers qualify for FHA loans, not just conventional home buyers.
"They wouldn’t allow you to do that if they didn’t believe the homes were of good quality," Nichols said.
"People from all spectrums are choosing mobile homes because of the value and the quality," said Nichols, who estimated that one-third of dwellings in Mississippi are manufactured homes, citing state figures.
Since January, the county has handed out sewer permits to homeowners for 59 conventional homes and 30 new mobile homes, said county permit clerk Diane Stewart.
Stewart pointed out, however, that those mobile homes are merely moving onto new property.
"Unlike the houses, that doesn’t mean the mobile home is new," she said.
The Panola County tax collector’s office recorded 7,860 homestead exemptions for homeowners last year, county figures show. Of that number, 3,361 – not quite half – came from citizens who are disabled or age 65 or older.