Board of supervisors

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2011

Kelly Magee

‘County is doing what it’s got to do’

By Billy Davis

It’s an annual ritual, and often a thankless one, in Panola County government: when the calendar flips to August, the Board of Supervisors begins preparing a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The fiscal year begins October 1. So the county board will sit down for hours-long meetings, through August and September, to hammer out and pass a budget.

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This year, it’s different.  

This year there’s an election.

This summer 18 candidates are seeking to unseat the five incumbents on the Panola County Board of Supervisors. And there’s no better campaign topic — and easy campaign strategy— than talking taxes.

“What I want the public to know is that we haven’t raised taxes every year,” said Board president Gary Thompson, who has drawn three Democrat opponents in the August 2 primary.

The winner of the primary will face a Republican and an independent candidate November 2.

Thompson was referring to a controversial Board of Supervisors vote in 2008, during budget preparations, that added five mills to Panola County’s tax levy.

The five-mill tax increase, which came eight months into Thompson’s first year in office, was also compounded by a property reappraisal that shot property taxes up in the middle of a recession.  

The South Panola School District also requested a millage increase, marking the third hit to taxpayers in three years, according to Thompson.

Thompson acknowledged the property tax increase, coupled with the reappraisal and more school taxes, have made some voters angry toward county government.

“I’ve been questioned about it,” admitted Thompson, who said he has tried to explain the property reappraisal, done every four years, is out of the hands of the Board of Supervisors.

The Panolian reported in 2008 that then-County Administrator David Chandler flatly told supervisors they had to increase the millage or start the 2008-2009 fiscal year with a deficit.  

The Panolian also reported at the time — and Thompson also recalled — that Chandler’s suggested increase kept rising as supervisors kept returning for budget meetings.

“The first time it was two mills, then three (mills), then five,” Thompson said this week.

Chandler has recently been named an un-indicted co-conspirator in federal court, where a Panola businessman and a former Tri-Lakes Medical Center CEO face charges of conspiracy and fraud.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering has also demanded that Chandler pay back $297,772 for claiming disallowable overtime.

 “David was our advisor at the time. We had to trust him,” Thompson said of Chandler, who was set to retire and was preparing his final budget for county government at the time.

Other than that, Thompson candidly told a reporter he wanted to stay away from that topic. Instead, he wanted to credit current County Administrator Kelley Magee for poring over the county budget, then in danger of sliding into the red, and pulling it into the black.

Magee was “like a ball of fire” when supervisors gave her the OK to attack the budget and rein in spending, Thompson recalled.

Magee was working for Lafayette County government when she was hired by the Board of Supervisors in August 2008, right at budget time, to succeed the retiring Chandler.

She had been deputy comptroller for Lafayette and, before that, worked for the State Auditor’s Office.

Thompson and Magee met recently with a reporter in her office, where District 5 Supervisor Bubba Waldrup was also present.

According to Magee, when Chandler announced the need for a millage increase three years ago, the county’s cash reserves had dwindled from $6.6 million in 2006 to $3.4 million in 2008.

 “They did have to raise the five mills, because the cash reserves were almost gone,” Magee explained. “The money was there — that was true — but they were spending their savings.”

When supervisors green-lighted Magee to cut expenditures, the new administrator began meeting with department heads, at times pointedly asking them to explain expenditures in the budgets, according to county officials.  

Then the complaints started coming in.  

“I fielded some of those complaints. I did,” said Waldrup. “I told them the county is doing what the county has got to do.”

“There have been complaints,” Thompson added, “but what she’s done is the things that needed to be done.”

Waldrup pointed out that when Magee was hired, Panola County government was then in the first year of a troubling recession, when county revenues reflected a drastic slowdown.  

 “That’s when the department heads started calling her,” he recalled. “They knew this was serious business.”

Thompson also credited Magee for informing supervisors of the month-to-month financial outlook for county government.

“I told her once, ‘I’m not trying to be nosy,’ and she said, ‘No, I want you to know.’ And she does,” said Thompson.

In fact, Magee passed out pie charts and graphs to Batesville Rotarians Tuesday, when she described the county’s financial outlook to the Rotary Club.

The handouts show the sources of Panola’s tax revenue, how the expenditures are carved up, and various cuts that have been made to trim expenditures.

The budget information is available on-line at

“We’re now three years into this recession,” Thompson said, “and we’re in better shape, I believe, than three-quarters of the counties in the state.”