Sardis EOC building at heart of squabble

The Sardis Mayor and Board of Aldermen continued bickering with the Panola County Board of Supervisors this week about future ownership of the old National Guard Armory, which the town leases to the county at no charge.

The town leased the then-vacant building to the county in 2008 for 25 years to house the Emergency Operations Center. Since then, the EOC has grown steadily, adding new offices and expanding the scope of services managed from the 11,000 sq. ft. building on Msg. William J. Ferrell Dr., located off of Lee St. in Sardis next to Performance Marine.

Before then, Panola County was using a small building near the county jail for emergency operations and rooms in the justice complex for dispatching.

Since then, the county has made considerable upgrades to the building ,including adding a parking lot, building a storage shed for equipment, and a host of other improvements totaling more than $200,000.

The county board asked EOC Director Daniel Cole to attend a Sardis board meeting with the intention of having the property deeded to Panola County. Cole did just that, but his request was not approved with the town’s board saying the no-cost lease could stay in place, but they would rather keep possession of the building.

On Tuesday of this week, all of the county board of supervisors, along with county administrator Kate Victor and Cole, attended another Sardis town board meeting and again asked for the building to be deeded to the county. This suggestion was again met with opposition with Sardis aldermen saying they were reluctant to “give a building away.”

Sardis leaders said their town already pays the county about $45,000 a year, and to sign over the deed would be fiscally irresponsible to taxpayers. Supervisors reminded the aldermen that the money received from Sardis was spent directly on dispatch costs for the 911 and other emergency services, and is no windfall for the county.

The Sardis board met again Wednesday and agreed to offer the county a new 45-year lease that would run through 2063, but not give the building to the board of supervisors. “I don’t see what the problem is with that,” said Alderman-at-Large Michael Price. “Hopefully, we will all be in heaven by then anyway and it won’t matter.”

The supervisors, who generally don’t agree fully with each other on any issue, are steadfastly united on this matter, though, and made clear to the Sardis board they were not pleased with the board’s decision and hinted they may consider building a new office for the Emergency Operations Center, away from Sardis. There are several federal and state grant options for the construction of emergency services buildings, although the county has not yet made application for any of those funding sources.

The current building houses all of the county’s emergency equipment, including side-by-side vehicles, ATVs, three boats, and several emergency trucks, including an old bus that has been converted in a fully-functioning 12-person ambulance that is designed to be a mobile triage unit in case of a mass casualty event.

Additionally, the building is used for a wide variety of training classes and conferences conducted by multiple state agencies throughout the year. With almost 20 full-time employees at the site each day, including Lifeguard ambulance personnel, who are also housed at the facility, Sardis aldermen have a vested interest in keeping the EOC in the town because of the economic benefits resulting from the daily use by the different offices.

Board of Supervisors President Cole Flint, at Tuesday’s Sardis board meeting, reminded the aldermen that county equipment and manpower is “up here all the time” helping with various projects the town can’t complete with their own equipment. The county routinely does small paving projects, among other things, for Sardis, and “we have never asked you to pay us a dime” for the work.

Much of the ill-will was caused a few weeks ago when a sewer line back-up at the Emergency Operations Center caused overflowing sinks and toilets. The county requested that Sardis have Public Works Director Quinn West send his employees to the building with a small excavator to dig to the sewer line allowing county workers to locate the problem and make repairs.

Flint said he was told West did not want to use Sardis’ equipment on what is generally thought to be a county building, and the supervisors eventually had county employees dig to the line with shovels.

Once the line was exposed,  workers discovered a large piece of concrete had collapsed into the line and the problem was easily fixed. That incident, though, will apparently have far-reaching consequences.

In a letter drafted by Thomas Shuler, the board attorney for the Town of Sardis, and sent to each of the supervisors, aldermen were polite, but insistent, that the deed to the property remain in the vault on E. Lee Street, and not in the courthouse on the Batesville Square.

The letter, dated Oct. 3, 2018, reads as follows:

Dear Friends,

I have been asked to contact you to follow up on the discussions regarding the Panola County Emergency Operations Center building in Sardis. The Mayor and Board of Aldermen held a special meeting Wednesday morning at which time they voted to offer Panola County a new lease of this building to run for a period of 45 years commencing in 2018. The lease would be on the same terms and conditions as the existing lease contract. The Town sincerely appreciates the assistance given to it by Panola County and hopes the County will appreciate the ability to use this building and property for these emergency purposes essentially free of charge for these many years and well past the lifetime of us all. The terms of this lease would be similar to the length of the Town’s lease at Sardis Lake on which the Marina is constructed and should be sufficient to recover any additional improvements the County wishes to make in the property. However, the board determined that it was in the best interest of the Town of Sardis and its residents to retain title to this property which fronts on the Interstate for the use of future generations, and therefore this long term lease is all that can be offered.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas S. Shuler

Upon learning of the contents of the letter, Supervisor Flint, 33, said he appreciated the offer, but had a duty to his fellow supervisors to work for their original goal of taking full possession of the property.

“Besides that,” Flint said. “I plan on living at least another forty-five years, and would not want to have to deal with this again when I’m nearly eighty years old.”

By then, the building which was built in 1964, would be 99 years old.

The supervisors are expected to take up the matter again Monday (Oct. 8) when they convene at the Batesville Courthouse at 9 a.m.