Panola County 2009

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 5, 2009

Panola County Road Department employee Leroy Jones follows a dump truck as it drops gravel for shoulder work on Pope-Water Valley Road this week. A tight county budget, worsened by a weak economy, could mean funds might be scarce for road improvements this year, supervisors have said. State funds paid for the road work on Pope-Water Valley Road and several others. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

County describes plan for new year: survive it

By Billy Davis

The “wish list” for Panola County government in 2009 is short and simple: to stay afloat in a wobbly economy.

“What we’re trying to do is survive,” said Supervisor Bubba Waldrup, when asked this week what he hoped for the county to accomplish in the new year.

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Other supervisors gave similar answers, describing a lean budget year that will require a careful watch over the county’s $24 million budget.

“To me that’s the main thing: in these economic times, we’ve got to work on staying within our budget,” said Supervisor Gary Thompson, the current board president.

Supervisors have been warning about a tight budget since the summer, when they grudgingly approved a five-mill increase and did not give raises to county employees.

Except for budget increases at the sheriff’s department and road department, county offices were cautioned to maintain their current-year budgets.

The millage increase, suggested by now-former County Administrator David Chandler, was the first increase in several years.

The fiscal year began October 1, and sales tax collections for October, November and December are $69,000 below the previous year, said County Administrator Kelley Magee.

“The numbers show we’re below last year’s collections, and that’s with the five-mill increase,” she said.

A study of tax figures shows, for example, that sales of car tags for new automobiles has slowed, the new administrator said.

Since her hiring this summer, Magee has scrutinized line items in the current budget and brought her findings, both large and small, to the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors voted at a December 23 meeting, their last in 2008, to drop commercial garbage service.

Figures provided by Magee showed the service, which started a year ago, was losing money every month.

In past weeks Magee has sat down with Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright, and later with the county airport board, to review budget items.

Magee said this week that she has reviewed the county’s cell phone usage and will next look at “hard lines” used in county offices.

Supervisors this week also said they want to resume their annual summer road improvements, but they were less than certain about the outlook in 2009.

“I hope we can get some roads paved, but I just don’t see it,” said Supervisor Kelly Morris.

“The way the economy is, I’m sure any roads I’m looking to improve are way beyond what we can afford right now,” said Supervisor James Birge.

The annual road improvement program divides funds among Panola County’s five districts for road paving and resurfacing. To fund the road improvements the county has dipped into a revolving loan fund for several years, but Chandler told the board last spring that the fund had been exhausted.

A previous board had also quietly used proceeds from the sale of Tri-Lakes Medical Center to improve roads.

The current county board, after hearing Chandler’s warning, opted to skip road improvements last summer rather than raise taxes. Supervisors instead utilized more than $1 million in State Aid funds to resurface some county roads.

Asked if the county can resume its summer road improvements in 2009, Magee said, “If the money is there.”

“We won’t know until it’s closer to time,” she added.

With funds for road improvement uncertain, Magee and other supervisors said they hope to receive federal funds from the “stimulus package” being debated in the U.S. Congress.

In a “wish list” for those funds, supervisors have included other Panola County projects, including the coming industrial park near the county airport and an animal shelter.

Magee and Thompson cited the industrial park as a priority for 2009, citing its impact on economic development, and Thompson also cited the animal shelter planned by the City of Batesville. 

Thompson also said he wants to schedule a “roundtable discussion” among supervisors that would allow them to discuss and debate issues in a forum that’s less rigid than the regular board meetings.

“That way anybody can throw everything out there and we’ll talk about it,” he said.

Supervisor Vernice Avant, now occupying her late husband’s seat, said county priorities in 2009 should be cleaning up the roadside garbage, funding public transportation for the poor and elderly, and improving public education.

“We should get out educational system upgraded and get everybody to move up a level,” she said.

Despite the budget contraints, Waldrup said he hopes the Board of Supervisors continues to focus on its main goal: to improve the quality of life for Panola Countians.

“If we’re moving forward, even at a crawl, that’s better than a lot of communities,” he said.

“I feel like we’re 100 percent moving in the right direction thanks to our new county administrator. That’s my opinion,” Waldrup added.