Headlines – 9/15/2006

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 15, 2006

The Panolian: HEADLINES – September 15, 2006

  From the 9/15/06 issue of The Panolian   –   

     With Sardis Lower Lake spread out beyond him, a construction worker looks back at a photo-snapping reporter at the mouth of the Sardis Lake spillway Tuesday morning. The dam tunnel has been closed, and the lower lake’s channel has been unwatered, to allow for inspections and repairs of the structure by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractor Ferguson Williams.
     "The engineers from Vicksburg will be here September 20 to inspect us, and we should be re-opened by the end of the month," said Dereck Redwine, engineering technician for the Corps. The unwatering and repair work occurs every five years, he said.
With no money to burn, fire dept. plans to charge for calls
By Billy Davis

Citing rising costs for fuel, insurance and firefighting equipment, the Mt. Olivet Volunteer Fire Department plans to alter its by-laws to increase yearly dues and charge more for non-member fire calls.

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The Mt. Olivet department and other volunteer departments already charge insurance carriers for their costs when firefighters respond to structure fires, most often a house or mobile home fire. Mt. Olivet currently charges up to $250 for "non-members," meaning property owners who have not made a yearly dues payment of $25.

The coming change at Mt. Olivet, however, will add grass fires and vehicle wrecks to the list of required payment, said Tony Meyer, chairman of Mt. Olivet’s board of commissioners.

The fire call charge to non-members, which will jump to a maximum of $500 when the new by-laws are passed, will be required of non-member residents regardless of whether or not they have insurance to cover the bill, confirmed Mt. Olivet Fire Chief Arthur Biggers.

The fire department’s annual membership dues, a voluntary payment from property owners, will jump from $25 a year to $35 a year if the by-laws are passed, the Mt. Olivet officials said.

The increases will begin January 1, 2007.

"This is not to put money in a bank account," said Biggers. "This money is to pay expenses and maintain our level of service."

Mt. Olivet’s plans surfaced at the "second Monday" meeting this week of the county supervisors. Representatives of the fire department handed supervisors a letter describing their intentions and the coming changes to the department’s by-laws, and asking for approval from the board.

Supervisors were split over whether the board of supervisors has any legal right to allow or even interfere in the fire department’s plans, eventually instructing board attorney Bill McKenzie to research the supervisors’ authority and report back.

The letter also made clear that Mt. Olivet will respond to fire calls regardless of a person’s membership or non-membership in the fire district.
Also during the meeting, Daniel Cole, Panola County Emergency Management deputy director, called the plan "ill-advised" due to liability issues over the membership.

Reached after the meeting, Cole said he hopes the department’s struggle for adequate funding is weighed against the liability issue.

"All of the fire departments are singing from the same sheet of music when it comes to funding," Cole said, "but the words ‘membership dues’ can get them in trouble. They have to be careful how they word that."

Regarding the struggle for operating funds, Cole agreed the county’s volunteer fire departments are hurting more each year as costs increase.

"All of the fire departments need the help and support of the community," Cole said. "I don’t think we’ll lose any of them, but they’ll be fighting an uphill battle for fuel and manpower."

Panola County is divided into 10 fire districts that are served by unpaid volunteer firefighters. In the Mt. Olivet Fire District, located southeast of Batesville, the coverage area stretches from the Central Academy area around Highway 315 and Highway 6 East to the Good Hope community, a total of 46 square miles.

The fire districts’ fire departments are partially funded by Panola County government, which taxes property owners two mills for fire protection, but depend also on fund-raisers, yearly dues payments, and often the firefighters’ own wallets.

The amount of tax monies raised differs from district to district according to the assessed value of property within each district. Mt. Olivet will receive about $8,500 this year from its millage, county figures show.

Annual fuel costs for the department’s vehicles have jumped from $2,000 to nearly $6,000 after the number of fire calls tripled in the last five years, Biggers told The Panolian.

"We’re growing every day in our fire district, but our funding is not keeping up with the demand," Biggers said. "We work on our own trucks, but if you can’t afford the parts then it doesn’t matter what work we can do, but people still expect us to show up."

The Mt. Olivet Fire District also boasts a Class 8 fire rating, an insurance scale from 1 to 10 that insurers use to price fire insurance on property such as homes and outbuildings.

A Class 1 rating is the best rating available and means cheaper insurance rates for the property owner. The Class 8 rating in the Mt. Olivet community is also the best of any of the county’s volunteer departments, which boast ratings of 9s and 10s.

In order to maintain its Class 8 rating, Mt. Olivet spends "a load of money" to replace outdated equipment, such as radios and firefighters’ airpacks, Biggers said.

"When we get inspected by the state, they use a point system to evaluate us," Biggers said. "They will pick up our stuff and say, ‘This is old, this is old,’ and then we’ll be back at a 10 and have to start all over."

A Batesville insurer contacted by this newspaper said $524 is the dollar difference in a Class 8 rating versus a Class 9 rating for a home in the Mt. Olivet community he recently insured for $80,000. A Class 10 rating would cost the homeowner $944 more than the Class 8 rating, he said.

The agent stressed that rates vary with credit scores and loss history.

Biggers said the Mt. Olivet Fire Department is proposing the change to its by-laws only after support from the community continues to dwindle.

"We don’t have fund-raisers any more because nobody shows up, and we don’t send out mailers anymore because we’ll spend $800 and not get that money back," Biggers said. "If everybody just paid their $25 a year, we wouldn’t be having this talk right now."

Plus regular PANOLA PEOPLE features:
I-55 crime spree ends in Batesville
By Rupert Howell

A Wal-Mart shopper from New Orleans had an I-55 shopping spree ended when a local Wal-Mart employee realized the credit card he was using to buy a camera was stolen.

According to Batesville Police Detective Paul Shivers, Conrad Cheneau and another suspect had been shopping at malls and super stores from Brookhaven to Batesville along the I-55 corridor Tuesday.

When the Wal-Mart clerk realized the card was stolen, the subject ran from the store, apparently leaving his accomplice.

A concerned citizen realized what was going on and gave chase, calling the Batesville Police Department.

Cheneau was arrested in Sardis behind Lake Inn, located near I-55, about 5 p.m.

Shivers stated that Panola County Deputy Justin Maple was the arresting officer with the assistance of Chief Deputy Otis Griffin and the Sardis Police Department.

Shivers said the accomplice checked in to the Ramada Inn in Batesville but left before officers checked the hotels.

The New Orleans pair used stolen credit cards to purchase approximately $20,000 worth of merchandise including eight or nine laptop computers, other electronic gadgetry, high-end clothing, and Wal-Mart gift cards.

The U.S. Secret Service has become involved in the matter as false IDs were used and the electronic transactions occurred across state lines. Shivers said the false ID charges can carry up to a two-year jail sentence each.

The suspect was out on bond for a $7,500 theft from Loomis Fargo, according to Shivers.

The BPD detective also said that his department is busy contacting stores who might have been victims of the shopping spree and law enforcement agencies who might have jurisdiction.

Shivers stated that Cheneau would appear for a preliminary hearing next Wednesday in Batesville Municipal Court, where he faces local charges of false pretense and forgery. Those charges are likely to be remanded while Cheneau is turned over to the Secret Service where he may face federal indictment on consolidated charges.

Tax levy sees bump from schools, hospital millage
By Billy Davis

An increase in school funds at South Panola, and hospital millage that shifted to the entire county, means Panola taxpayers north and south will see their property taxes increase when the new fiscal year begins October 1.

The board of supervisors voted Thursday morning to approve Panola County government’s 2006-2007 tax levy, which totals 116.94 mills for property owners in north Panola County and 106.98 mills for those who own property in the south.

Panola is divided into two judicial districts and two public school districts that split the county’s property tax assessment in half. The Tallahatchie River, which meanders southwest across the county from Sardis Lake, is roughly a dividing line.

Last year, the county’s total millage ? meaning the county-wide millage and public schools together ? was 114.84 in north Panola County and 103.31 in south Panola County.

The levy on county taxpayers funds county offices such as the chancery and circuit courts, the sheriff’s department, the road department, and the solid waste department. Millage is also budgeted for the county’s public libraries and Northwest Community College.

The entire county budget for 2006-2007 is $17.8 million, Panola County Administrator David Chandler announced in recent weeks.

The biggest slices of the taxpayers’ pie go to the sheriff’s department/jail and road department, which will require $3.25 million each to operate during the fiscal year.

In north Panola County, taxpayers there will see their taxes increase after supervisors voted to add 2.3 mills, which funded the now-dissolved South Panola Hospital District, to the county’s overall budget.

Last year, when the county was part owner of the now-private Tri-Lakes Medical Center, the 2.3 mills were spread on the county’s tax rolls as a separate figure that was assessed only to the south portion of the county.

The 2.3 mills is now spread between the county’s road and bridge maintenance fund, which funds the road department, and a note borrowing fund commonly known as tax anticipation. The road and bridge fund jumped from 8.12 mills to 10 mills, county figures show, while tax anticipation jumped from 1.5 mills to 1.92 mills.

In south Panola County, a budget increase request from the South Panola School District resulted in a millage increase of 3.67 mills for taxpayers.

By law, public school districts can request and must receive budget increases up to four percent of a county’s "base," meaning its assessed value. That request requires a bump in millage from supervisors, who are technically raising taxes without their approval to meet the budget request.

Due to the increase, South Panola’s millage rate will be 49.77 beginning October 1, up from 43.26 mills last year.

South Panola announced plans for a budget increase in June, predicting a millage increase of 1.49 mills to create about $253,000 in new revenue for the school district in the coming fiscal year.

However, Chandler told supervisors in recent weeks he predicted a millage increase of 2.23 mills to meet the school district’s budget request.

Chandler and South Panola Superintendent Dr. Keith Shaffer later squabbled over whose projected budget figures were more accurate.

The North Panola School District is capped at 55 mills. The millage rate is 59.73, which includes the addition of a 4.73-mills bond payment.

Robber nets cash at hotel
By Billy Davis

Batesville police are seeking an armed robber who made a late-night cash grab at the Day’s Inn September 9.

The hotel’s desk clerk described the robber as a slender black male with short, curly hair. He wore a white t-shirt and blue jeans and hid his eyes behind mirrored sunglasses.

"He said he wanted a room and when the desk clerk asked for identification, he flashed the handgun instead," said BPD Detective Lee Martin.

The robbery occurred about 11:24 p.m. when the robber discovered an unlocked lobby door, the detective said.

Martin said the handgun was described as a .380, a small automatic.

The suspect fled through the front door of the hotel and left in a small, compact car, either dark blue or black in color, with a spoiler on the back.

Anyone with information about the identity of the robbery suspect should contact the police department’s detective division at 563-5653.


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