Como Police

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Como keeping police… ‘for now’

By John Howell Sr.

Town officials in Como met for over two hours Friday night, hammering out a plan that would keep three full-time police officers and assure police presence along the Main Street tourist section.

The mayor and aldermen also accepted several volunteers from among citizens who attended the meeting who will assist in an overhaul of the town’s billing for water and sewer service.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Friday’s special called meeting to pay claims and discuss police matters had been postponed from the week before when icy weather threatened to keep a quorum of aldermen from attending.

Tourism tax proceeds

Como Main Street Alliance (CMSA) President Dan Smith presented a plan that would allow tourism tax proceeds to fund police pay for officers who patrol Main Street and its immediate vicinity. During the Jan. 15 meeting of Como’s mayor and aldermen, town elected officials and Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby discussed implications if the municipality eliminated its police department as a means of shoring up the long-suffering town budget that was further impacted last fall by a severe cash flow interruption between a former town clerk’s resignation in August and the hiring of a new clerk in October.

“One of (the) first strategies in talking about downtown development is the importance of security,” Smith said, after reviewing the state legislation that authorized a tourism tax to be levied in the town.
Smith said that he and board attorney John Calvin Patterson had studied the legislation and crafted language for the meeting minutes that would authorize expenditure specifically for police patrol in a defined tourism district that includes Main Street.

“This frees up some patrol duties that are not going to have to be done by officers that are paid from the general tax revenues of the town,” Smith said.

AG’s approval needed

The plan to pay police from tourism fund proceeds would be contingent on approval by the Mississippi Attorney General, Smith said.

“I’ve gone over countless attorney general’s opinions, Patterson said. “I wouldn’t have a problem arguing that it is a justified use of the funds for the promotion of tourism and economic development for the Town of Como.”

“However, out of an abundance of caution,” Patterson continued, “I would like permission from the board to seek an Attorney General’s opinion.”

Smith said that approximately $36,000 from tourism funds for salary, plus an additional $10,000 for benefits, would “pay for approximately 1.5 officers.”

Sheriff’s assistance needed

“If the town were to retain two officers, for instance, that are paid for out of general tax proceeds, and you have this (approximately 58 hours of patrol paid from tourism tax proceeds), if you look at the number of hours in a week, … you have 80 hours that is paid for by your town budget, 58 hours paid for out of this, in a 16-hour week that leaves you about 30 hours that you’d have to be negotiating with the sheriff’s department for coverage, if you’re just trying to keep at least one officer in town at all times.

“That would save you about $120,000 a year,” Smith said.

Smith said that additional law enforcement coverage for special events could also be negotiated with the sheriff’s department. The CMSA president said that other appropriate uses for tourism tax money could include payments to power the street lights on Main Street, maintenance and landscape along Main Street and its approach routes and purchase of a Gator-type vehicle to patrol the downtown area.

No action was taken immediately following Smith’s presentation but later during Friday’s meeting the mayor and aldermen voted to enter executive session to discuss personnel issues in the police department. Aldermen Teresa Dishmon and Ruby Higgenbottom voted to close the meeting; Aldermen Bill Mitchell and Forster Ruhl voted to keep it open, and Alderman Clark Gregory abstained. Mayor Everette Hill broke the tie with a vote to close the meeting

When the public was allowed to re-enter the meeting room some 40 minutes later, the mayor said that no action was taken.

“We’re keeping our police for now,” Alderman Ruby Higgenbottom said. She also said that town officials would accept Smith’s recommendation for use of the tourism tax proceeds and discuss coverage gaps with the sheriff’s department.

Volunteers appointed

Appointment of volunteers arose after town clerk Kara Killebrew asked the elected officials to give her priorities for her job. Killebrew is authorized to work part-time — 24 hours a week. Since she was hired in October, aldermen have voted to increase water and sewer rates and the garbage collection fee. At each subsequent meeting, aldermen have discussed additional revelations of water and sewer customers who are receiving the services but who are not billed.

“I know that y’all are aware … at almost every meeting the water has been brought up,” Killebrew said. “There are a lot of things to be fixed in and around that. Being that I only work 24 hours a week, those tasks plus other tasks to get us back on track, it’s really hard to accomplish that. As it sits right now I’m behind just to get the bills out for this coming cycle,” she said.

“I don’t know how y’all want me to handle it or what you would like for me to focus on,” Killebrew continued, describing software revisions in the water system billing program that are needed if it is to be overhauled to make sure everyone in Como receiving water and sewer services gets billed for it.

“What if I come in and work four hours with you?” Alderman Teresa Dishmon asked.

“It would help,” Killebrew replied.

“Is there any way that I could help with property tax (and) water in terms of getting the city with the chancery clerk’s office …?” Kate Patterson asked. “I could help with knowing where properties are located to collect bills and where water meters are located.” Patterson, an attorney and also the wife of board attorney John Calvin Patterson, has been conducting research to compare the town’s records of land ownership with the county’s.

Como librarian Alice Pierotti volunteered in the office to help on Tuesdays, the day the library is closed.

“Can y’all get me a list of all your water customers?” Mark Lipscomb asked. “I read the meters in town for several years.”

“You know where all those meters are, probably.” Alderman Bill Mitchell said.

“I know where 99 percent of them are,” Lipscomb said.

“Willie ‘Disco’ (Dishmon) always told me he knows where every meter was in town,” Mayor Everette Hill said.

“He read every meter for four or five years, he’s the one that read them; he read the water and I read the gas,” Lipscomb said.

Melvin Crockett also volunteered to help with the meter reading.

At the attorney’s advice that a vote to accept the volunteers’ offers of help would be prudent procedure, aldermen voted unanimously to accept their assistance.