Higgins proposes county take on debt for industrial park projects


Joe Max Higgins and Trip Hairston

Joe Max Higgins and Trip Hairston



Tess Vrbin



The Golden Triangle Development LINK will draw up a contract for the Lowndes County supervisors to review and possibly approve by March 1, LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said at Friday's board meeting, in order to settle months of debate over whether and how much to fund the Lowndes County Industrial Development Authority.


Higgins presented the board with options for LCIDA funding in hopes of allowing several capital projects in the county to go forward, including issuing debt to cover those projects.


"I'm not asking y'all to approve this today," he said. "... I am imploring you that on March 1, there will be a document in front of y'all that you've looked at and purposely understand and (will) approve. When you do that, we'll take it back to LCIDA and they'll approve it, and we'll quit drying our dirty laundry in the court of public opinion."



LCIDA is a county-appointed board that is responsible for land purchases for industrial expansion, maintenance and infrastructure building primarily at the Golden Triangle Industrial Park near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.


LCIDA pays the LINK, which has a separate contract with the county to lead overall industrial development efforts, about $140,000 per year to manage its day-to-day operations.


The county is LCIDA's primary funding source every year, and it is also responsible for all of LCIDA's debts. General fund revenue usually covers LCIDA's operational expenses. For Fiscal Year 2021, however, LCIDA asked for $1.3 million but was only budgeted for $285,000.


The allocation is not enough for LCIDA to build up a healthy reserve or build up infrastructure before industries move in, LCIDA board president Thomas Lee previously told The Dispatch. LCIDA now has $3 million in the bank, $1.3 million of which cannot be spent as required by the Rural Development Authority, which lends LCIDA money.


Higgins and Lee both said Friday that LCIDA needs to accrue nearly $2.6 million in debt service reserves by the end of 2024.


The supervisors have disagreed for the past few months over whether LCIDA needs Lowndes County taxpayers' money. Supervisor Harry Sanders of District 1 has said he will continually oppose the county entering into a contract with its own subsidiary, and Leroy Brooks of District 5 and Board President Trip Hairston of District 2 have also said they want to be sure that LCIDA needs the funding.


LCIDA first asked the county in November to permanently designate a mill's value -- however much a mill generates -- from the county to cover its operational expenses. Mills are used to calculate property taxes, and one mill equals $1 of property tax levied on $1,000 worth of assessed value. Lowndes' mill value this year is $750,000.



LCIDA funding options


In addition to the pledged $285,000, the county could either fund up to $2.235 million worth of capital improvement projects individually over the next three fiscal years, or it could cover them with a $2.3 million bond issue, Higgins said.


Those projects are a $620,000 water rehabilitation plant, a $500,000 water line replacement in the southwestern part of the county, and clearing and grubbing the Infinity Megasite for $615,000. Funding one project per fiscal year, while also providing an annual $200,000 for LCIDA's emergency fund, would leave LCIDA with operational shortfalls between $800,000 and $950,000 each year.


Higgins said the county should also consider preparing a plot of land for a "speculative building," or an empty building with the goal of attracting a new business to an existing structure, for $500,000.


The bond issue would require annual payments of $270,000, and three fiscal years' worth of funding LCIDA's operational shortfall would cost $330,000, bringing the county's total cost up to $600,000 per year.


Hairston told The Dispatch after the meeting that a bond issue is "better for the overall budget" to complete "necessary" capital improvement projects.


He and Brooks agreed to meet with the LINK to iron out any more concerns they might have about Higgins' suggestions.


Brooks said he hopes the supervisors can come to a quick resolution once they have a contract in front of them.


"Let's go ahead and vote it up or down so we can talk about the real deal out there," Brooks said. "That's my sentiment and I might be the only one that has it, but we've beat this one to death."



Other business


Later in the meeting, the board unanimously approved a sewer line extension at the Golden Triangle Industrial Park, in preparation for an automotive company to potentially make its home there.


During a special-call work session after the meeting, County Recreation Manager Roger Short updated the board on plans for a sports complex on North Frontage Road, just east of Taylor Thurston Road. The county purchased the 89-acre plot of land for $840,000 in July 2018.


Short said he believes a water park should generate some income for the county. He also said the original plan for 15 fields has been reduced to eight, but it should still be enough to support local sports leagues and host tournaments.


"The layout of the ball fields and the water park can really give us a better ability to utilize the property," Short said.


The board unanimously voted to allow Short to create conceptual drawings for the complex.





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