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Counties consider funding options for Communiversity

 

Harry Sanders

Harry Sanders

 

 

Nathan Gregory

 

Officials with East Mississippi Community College and the Golden Triangle Development LINK are expected to approach supervisors in Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha County next month in hopes of securing 20-year funding commitments for a new workforce training facility it calls "Communiversity."  

 

The proposed 133,690 square-foot, three-story building would house 15 manufacturing, technology and engineering educational bays on a 12-acre site near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport donated to EMCC. It would also house two computer workstations, eight classrooms, seminar space and administrative offices as well as dining services and a room dedicated to displaying current industrial products and development activity in the Golden Triangle. 

 

Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said with EMCC outgrowing its current workforce training facility, a new one is a must and counties must be willing to realize and foster that need. 

 

"This is something that is absolutely a no-brainer," Sanders said. "We're going to be required to do this if we want to continue the success that we've had. These are high-paying jobs. These employees are going to have to go and learn the skills involved in doing these jobs." 

 

The first step each board must take to follow through is renewing its contract with the LINK. The second step is agreeing to commit an amount over 20 years based on the assessed value of each county toward the new facility.  

 

State legislators have already agreed to pitch in $8 million this year toward the project, which is expected to cost $38 million and will likely commit more during their next legislative session in 2015. The three counties will also need to do their part. Lowndes County supervisors will be asked to dedicate $10 million to the project, while Oktibbeha and Clay counties will be asked to commit $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively.  

 

Supervisors with all three county boards say staying on board should not be a difficult decision to make. However, each county has unique financial circumstances and challenges to consider in terms of generating what the amount they will be asked to contribute. 

 

Lowndes County has two factors playing in its favor, even though it is being asked to commit nearly triple the other two counties put together. The value of a county mill this fiscal year is $485,000, but that amount is projected to increase substantially in coming years as fee-in-lieu agreements with Severstal end next year and Weyerhauser end in 2016. With those 10-year agreements ending, those two industries will have to begin paying full property taxes, which means more money for the county. 

 

The trust fund from the county's $30 million hospital sale is also a possible revenue generator that can be used to make annual payments toward the new building. Two firms oversee the investment of that money and the county has the authority to withdraw a percentage of the earned interest each year to use for special projects. Supervisors opted to withdraw more than $900,000 earlier this month on the condition that they use it for a large-scale project. Board president Harry Sanders said the proposed facility qualifies as such a project.  

 

"Looking at what our mill is going to be worth in two years, a mill in Lowndes County when some of these industries come off a fee-in-lieu, a mill in Lowndes County is going to be worth $700,000," Sanders said. "Next July, hopefully we'll be able to take another $900,000 out and be able to fund both (funding toward the new facility and a new Emergency 911 center) without raising taxes." 

 

Oktibbeha County doesn't have the same amount of industry activity. Supervisors and Starkville aldermen are going to be asked to front $10 million in economic development bonds for a project independent of the Communiversity -- a new research park. 

 

With another $2.5 million being asked of Oktibbeha County for a new workforce facility at EMCC, board president Orlando Trainer said he and his colleagues will have to consider several options. 

 

"We only have so many bullets in the gun, and if the board thinks this is something that's important, then the most traditional way would be to add on some additional millage," Trainer said. "Other than that, you'll have to cut from somewhere else, and once you do that, it's going to leave a void there. We may have some existing cash flow, some capacity to do things without having to put more on the existing millage, but it's too early to tell right now." 

 

Trainer said while the board knows it faces challenges, it understands the importance of the proposed facility and the benefits to the county. Like Lowndes County, Oktibbeha County would likely be the lead agency in terms of generating what will be asked for Communiversity and would not ask for a municipal pitch-in. 

 

"I think the board understands how important it is, but we've got several things on the table," Trainer said. "That's why I think as a board, we're going to have to really look at the whole ball of wax of everything the county does. Right now, we don't have a clear cut picture. We just know the request is coming. As one board member, I think it's something we really need to consider, even if we have to add on some millage to make it happen." 

 

Clay County supervisor R.B. Davis said he and his colleagues would find a way to financially support the LINK's endeavors after what it has done for the county. The board is currently seeking grant funding that would help provide a large portion of the $1 million payment, Davis said.  

 

"We've all made mistakes with economic development, not hiring the right person to be in that slot. Now we have the right person in the slot and we're going to do everything we can to support it and help promote it," Davis said. "I'm just really excited about it. It's quite an expense, but we are in the process of moving forward. This is another one of those things where it's going to cost money to make money, but whenever you can get a majority paid for and all we have to come up with is a small amount. It's going to be a great asset for this area."

 

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.

 

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