Leigh Mall on Highway 45 is on the auction block in a public sale scheduled for Jan. 8. Its parent company, Security National Properties, defaulted on a multi-million dollar loan for which the mall was listed as collateral. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, standing, appears before the city council Dec. 4 at the Muncipal Complex. The council suspended Rawle for 16 working days, without pay, for failing to provide city officials a clear picture of the city's financial status in a timely manner. The city operated at a near $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
Local developer Scott Berry is looking to build a mixed-use residential and commercial project at the site of the old Lee Middle School on Military Road. Berry, through Military Lee LLC, purchased the 15-acre lot for $450,000 from the Columbus Redevelopment Authority.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
December 29, 2018 10:23:09 PM
Funding issues dominated headlines in Columbus and Lowndes County in 2018.
The city and county feuded over parks funding, while the Legislature allowed the more than 30-year-old 2-percent restaurant sales tax to expire, severely hampering operations for the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A Mississippi Supreme Court decision that deemed businesses located on airport property as tax-exempt deeply impacted the budgets for the county and county school district. Meanwhile, the city discovered nearly two months after Fiscal Year 2018 ended that it had operated at an $881,000 deficit.
Here is a breakdown of the top stories of 2018 in Columbus and Lowndes County:
City, county squabble
Boiling tensions between Columbus and Lowndes County leaders -- particularly between Mayor Robert Smith and Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders -- came to a head by late summer.
An argument about whether county supervisors would honor an agreement to give the city $200,000 annually for three years for recreation spilled over into a feud that, at one point, put the funding of even the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library in jeopardy.
The two sides publicly squabbled over how assets were divided between the city and county following the October 2017 split of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority into separate departments. The assets dispute was settled quickly -- with both sides maintaining possession of what they already controlled.
But the parks debate heated up again when Sanders demanded the city present the county a list of capital improvements before supervisors would approve its $200,000 appropriation for city recreation. Columbus Chief Operating Officer David Armstrong approached the board of supervisors in August and accused its members of playing "petty politics" with the money. Supervisors approved giving the city $200,000 in Fiscal Year 2019, but made no such promise for the next two years.
Among other funding arguments that followed, Sanders indicated the county might reduce its funding for the public library unless the city -- which had contributed significantly less to the organization over the past decade -- agreed to give the same amount as the county.
Eventually, the county agreed to give its full $365,000 contribution to the library, while the city upped its share by $10,000 to $284,000.
The city and county, amid public outcry for bickering between the two entities to stop, also formed a joint committee of supervisors, councilmen and other city and county officials, to regularly meet, discuss issues that could affect both entities and make recommendations to their respective boards.
Leigh Mall up for auction
In late September, a legal ad printed in The Dispatch revealed Leigh Mall would be auctioned after its parent company, Security National Properties, defaulted on a $34.7 million loan.
Leigh Mall, located on Highway 45, was one of more than two-dozen properties nationwide that Security National Properties put up as collateral for the defaulted loan. The mall, built in the 1970s, has fallen on hard times in recent years, most recently with the closure of anchor store J.C. Penney and smaller tenants like Radio Shack and Sears Hometown Store. The mall building also is in need of major repairs.
The public sale was originally scheduled for Dec. 4 in a New York law office, but has been rescheduled for Jan. 8. One of the creditors for the loan, Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, is currently managing the mall.
City councilmen learned in November that the city operated at a near-$881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018 -- which ended Sept. 30.
Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle reported over-budget spending on employee overtime -- specifically the police, fire and public works departments -- contributed to the deficit, as did lower-than-expected sales and property tax collections.
Councilmen, claiming they were blindsided by the news and openly asking why they weren't informed of the city's financial condition before passing a new fiscal year budget in September, suspended Rawle without pay for 16 working days. That suspension will commence in January.
In an effort to rein in spending, councilmen attempted to invoke a broad spending freeze -- aimed at travel, overtime and any expenditure not previously approved by the board. In December, they rescinded that freeze and instead implemented more oversight over the budget, including a subcommittee of city officials to set stricter guidelines and a requirement for Rawle to submit more detailed monthly reports to the council.
CRA wins big with Lee Middle, bogs down in Burns Bottom
Columbus Redevelopment Authority finalized the sale of the former Lee Middle School property on Military Road to a private developer.
Scott Berry purchased the former school campus for $450,000 and plans to build a mixed-use development there. The site has earned landmark status from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, so Berry plans to take advantage of state tax credits to convert the main school building (which once housed Lee High School) to include upscale apartments and a restaurant.
He's also planning new housing and commercial construction at the site.
CRA had purchased an option from Columbus Municipal School District to sell the Lee Middle property.
But while the Lee Middle project was a big win for CRA in 2018, its efforts to revitalize the Burns Bottom neighborhood near downtown bogged down in controversy.
CRA, using a special millage approved by the city council, is purchasing properties in the dilapidated neighborhood to package the property for private development -- most likely higher-value residential.
In March, the city approved demolition of eight homes in Burns Bottom, one of which was an antebellum home once inhabited by the family for which the neighborhood gets its name. Turns out, the entire neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places, and demolition of any structures there has been delayed until the MDAH rules whether any properties should have State Landmark status.
Then in June, CRA had to cut ties with Realtor Andy Kalinowski, which was contracted to secure the sale of properties in Burns Bottom, because of threatening letters he sent to several property owners. CRA had not approved the content of the letters and sent the recipients apologies. The authority also hired new Realtors, Kaleena Richardson and Sherry Lipsey.
Hickman out, Labat hired at CMSD
Cherie Labat took over in June as Columbus Municipal School District superintendent, after former superintendent Philip Hickman was fired in February.
Labat was previously superintendent at Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, which has a state accountability rating of B. CMSD has a D rating.
Just a few months into her tenure, Labat fired longtime deputy superintendent Craig Shannon, who served as interim superintendent between Hickman's departure and Labat's hiring. The district's assistant superintendent, Pamela Lenoir-Barr, announced her retirement at about the same time as Shannon's firing.
Hickman, in December, filed a federal lawsuit against the district claiming racial discrimination in his firing.
Both Hickman and Labat are African-American.
Supreme Court rules businesses on airport properties are tax-exempt
A Mississippi Supreme Court ruling in May will cost Lowndes County and its school district more than $800,000 for at least the upcoming fiscal year.
The ruling, in the case of Rankin County v. Lakeland Income Properties, deemed all commercial properties located on airport-owned land are exempt from paying ad valorem or school taxes, citing a law the Legislature passed in 2013.
Three major industries are either entirely or partially located on Golden Triangle Regional Airport property in Lowndes County -- Airbus, Aurora Flight Sciences and Stark Aerospace.
Though local lawmakers expressed a will to change the law to limit its affects, it will hit Lowndes school district hardest with about $700,000 in lost property tax revenue.
County supervisors, who voted to raise the tax millage rate for 2019 partly because of the ruling, will take an estimated $115,000 hit.
Columbus cut ties with LINK, hires The Retail Coach
City councilmen in September opted to sever its ties with the Golden Triangle LINK for retail development and recruitment. Two months later, it signed a contract with The Retail Coach of Tupelo to provide those services instead.
The city had contributed $100,000 for each of the past 10 years to the LINK -- part of the county's overall $400,000 contribution to the economic development organization. While the LINK had drawn several industrial projects to the county in that time, councilmen were concerned the LINK hadn't done enough to bolster retail in the city limits.
The city's vote meant the county will now pay the LINK the whole $400,000 annually.
Meanwhile, the city will pay The Retail Coach $38,000 for its first year of service, and a lesser amount for subsequent years if the contract is renewed.
Restaurant sales tax expires
The countywide 2-percent restaurant sales tax, which had been on the books since the mid 1980s, expired June 30 after the Mississippi Legislature failed to renew it.
The tax, which had funded tourism and economic development efforts in the county, raised nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017. Businesses with at least $325,000 in annual prepared food and beverage sales were required to collect it from customers.
Both the city and county approved resolutions to remove the $325,000 "floor," meaning all businesses with those sales would have to collect it. But Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Lowndes County) led an effort to apply the floor to the renewal bill, while Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Lowndes County) vied for renewing the legislation according to the local resolutions.
The argument killed the tax, forcing the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau (which received nearly 90 percent of the funds) to lay off employees and drastically slash its budget.
The Legislature will try again to renew the tax in 2019 with a bill that reduces the floor to $100,000 and supplies tax revenue directly to the city and county for recreation.
Nora Miller leads MUW
The State Institutions of Higher Learning board formally appointed Nora Miller in September to serve as the Mississippi University for Women's 15th president.
Miller, who had served as interim president since Jim Borsig retired in June, is a MUW alumna. She has worked for the university for 17 years, including as senior vice president for administration and chief financial officer.
Steel Dynamics expansion
Steel Dynamics, located at the Lowndes County Industrial Park, announced a $240-million expansion in June.
The plant plans to build a third galvanizing line -- which will coat steel with zinc -- by mid-2020, which will add an estimated 45 jobs. SDI will invest $140 million for the new line and another $100 million for other improvements and upgrades. The county will provide $150,000 in sewer system upgrades at the site, and the Mississippi Development Authority tendered the county a $1.4 million loan to build rail at the site, which it will repay at no interest over 10 years.
SDI acquired Severstal in 2014 and has a total of 740 employees at the Lowndes plant.
County plans sports complex
Lowndes County is purchasing property west of Columbus to build what supervisors hope to be a "regional" sports complex.
Supervisors in October approved paying $840,000 for the old Penn Taylor Farm, an 89-acre tract near West Lowndes High School. Initial plans are to build baseball, softball and T-ball fields at the site.
Most viewed stories of 2018 on cdispatch.com
■ Kosciusko man charged with capital murder in Walmart shooting - 1/13/2018 - Alex Holloway
■ Patient awarded $2M in lawsuit against OBGYN - 9/4/2018 - Isabelle Altman
■ Leigh Mall up for auction after loan default - 9/29/2018 - Zack Plair
■ 'Kaelin Kersh Act' passes through the House - 2/10/2018 - Alex Holloway
■ Men carrying assault rifle, handgun and machete asked to leave Columbus Walmart - 3/20/2018 - Zack Plair
■ Two arrested for capital murder in weekend homicide - 10/17/2018 - Isabelle Altman
■ SPD radio operator charged with murder for newborn death - 2/2/2018 - Dispatch staff report
■ Sweet Adeline: Child's future hangs in balance as Columbus family awaits liver transplant - 2/17/2018 - Slim Smith
■ Cajun seafood restaurant coming to Highway 45 - 2/16/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ Missing motorist called 911 twice before disappearing - 7/6/2018 - Alex Holloway
■ Breaux Bridge restaurant to open by summer's end - 6/14/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ American Deli cashiers speak out after mall melee - 11/11/2018 - Zack Plair
■ Noxubee man, MUW grad wins big on Wheel of Fortune - 1/26/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ CAFB parents jailed for neglect of 7-week-old child - 10/19/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ Missing woman slept in deer stands, drank creek water for two days before being found - 7/7/2018 - Slim Smith
■ Labat selected as CMSD superintendent - 6/2/2018 - Mary Pollitz
■ Former insurance agent Ken Hargett arrested in cocaine, shooting incident - 1/29/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ Cracker Barrel employee shot at restaurant - 6/22/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
■ Church to get $8M from Tronox settlement - 3/16/2018 - Alex Holloway
■ New Hope shooting suspect charged for attempted murder - 2/13/2018 - Dispatch Staff Report
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
1. Demonstrators gather peacefully in front of Leigh Mall in light of Ball decision COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. DA: Public should know why AG dropped manslaughter charge in Boykin case COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. CPD investigating Sunday homicide COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Monday Profile: Together at Columbus High and MSMS, high-achieving duo goes separate ways for college COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Rep. Taylor, local activists plan racial justice march for Saturday STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY