County Cutbacks

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Panola supervisors Kelly Morris (left) and Gary Thompson listen as other board members and Administrator Kelley Magee discuss a confrontation minutes earlier with Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Cutbacks threatened during budget encounter

Billy Davis

A dispute over budget matters at the sheriff’s department became apparent Monday at supervisors’ First District meeting, where Sheriff  Hugh “Shot” Bright confronted supervisors about his department funding.

The sheriff was threatening to pull inmate labor from garbage trucks when a reporter overheard the conversation, supervisors said afterward.

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Bright did not open the meeting nor sit through it, which are both customary, but returned to the boardroom as board president Gary Thompson announced an adjournment. A minute later, the sheriff was confronting supervisors at their board table when a reporter walked up.

“I will send my employees home,” said Bright, who was visibly angry and pointing a finger at four seated supervisors. (Supervisor Gary Thompson was inside the boardroom but out of earshot).

Asked outside the boardroom about the confrontation, Bright told a reporter he would not comment.

The apparent disagreement over budget figures came after Bright was warned about overspending during the current fiscal year, said County Administrator Kelley Magee, when asked about the confrontation.

“I showed him his current budget compared to last year’s budget, and I showed him that he will probably go over budget,” Magee explained to The Panolian.

That meeting occurred about two weeks ago and did not include any sort of wish list of budget cuts, she said.

“I just asked him to look at his numbers,” Magee said.

The Panola County Sheriff’s Department currently has a $3.9 million budget that funds patrol and investigations, the jail, dispatchers and the narcotics task force.

The sheriff’s budget is the highest departmental expenditures in Panola County government followed closely by the road department at $3.6 million.

Magee further explained that she plans to meet with other department heads throughout county government, including Bright, to ensure that they are aware of the county’s worrisome finances.

 “I’m meeting with the airport board tonight,” she said, referring to the appointed officials who oversee the Panola County Airport.

Magee’s effort mirrors a similar scrutiny performed this summer when supervisors, led by Magee and former Administrator David Chandler, scrutinized more than 20 department budgets before finalizing the 2008-2009 budget.

Despite cuts, the current budget includes a five-mill increase, the first millage increase in several years.

At the board’s final budget meeting, Chandler told supervisors that the sheriff’s budget had included $600,000 in new expenditures, but that amount was being whittled down by at least $150,000.

At a public budget meeting in August, Bright became frustrated at supervisors’ requests to trim his budget, at one point threatening to end the late-night patrol shift if he was forced to make more cuts.

“I can keep my deputies at home and wait on calls,” the sheriff said.

“Do what you have to do,” Thompson then replied.

Supervisors alleged Monday that Bright employed a similar tactic during the confrontation with them: threatening to pull state inmate labor from county garbage trucks.

After Bright departed, and with the meeting adjourned, supervisors and Magee huddled together for approximately 20 minutes to informally discuss the confrontation with Bright and the use of inmate labor on the garbage trucks.

“I think you should meet and talk with (Bright), and show him the numbers,” Supervisor James Birge told Magee.

“James, I’ve already talked to him,” Magee replied. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Supervisors said ending the inmate labor would require hired workers, which would probably trigger an increase in garbage fees, and the elected officials wondered aloud how the public would react to a fee increase.

Supervisors asked Magee to return with a suggested fee increase that would cover the cost of new labor.

The topic of inmate labor led to a larger discussion of the solid waste department, including whether the county should drop its current commercial routes to save money.

“Our main priority should be residential,” said Supervisor Bubba Waldrup.