City attorney responds to county demands, accusations


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Link Link: Read the letter and attachments here

Jeff Turnage, City of Columbus Attorney



There are always two sides to every story. This is the City's side to a recent demand letter from Lowndes County over recreation assets, including money, and to the July 13 Commercial Dispatch article. In sum, Lowndes County holds more than $111,000 worth of City-owned recreation equipment following the split of the two entities from its recreation partnership. In addition, the expenditures the County labeled as "questionable" were approved in advance by the CLRA Board in its last meeting. 




In 1990, Columbus and Lowndes County entered into a City/County Agreement to pool their resources to provide recreational opportunities to theirĀ· residents. They operated under that agreement for nearly three decades until the County unilaterally decided that it would no longer participate jointly in providing recreational opportunities to City and County residents. Although they said at the time "we are getting out of the recreation business" the County Supervisors quickly began construction and operation of separate recreation facilities outside the City of Columbus. 




Once the County provided notice of its intention to split from the City, the parties had several discussions about whether that would actually work better for their citizens as a "house divided." The majority of the County Supervisors preferred the divided house and held firm on their decision to terminate the Agreement. 




Shortly after the termination date of the Agreement, Harry Sanders and Ralph Billingsley marched down to City Hall and demanded a meeting with Mayor Smith to discuss getting the County's share of the CLRA assets. At the time, Mayor Smith was in a meeting with me, Greg Lewis and David Armstrong discussing that very subject. Even though we had planned to first meet among ourselves, Sanders and Billingsley were insistent on meeting right then. Mayor Smith agreed and told his assistant to show them in. Upon entry into the Mayor's conference room, Harry Sanders immediately started demanding access and possession to various items of equipment and vehicles located at Propst Park and said that Roger Short and Greg Lewis had already discussed how the property would be divided up. I had reviewed the Interlocal Agreement many times and knew that the Agreement addressed division of property. Thus, I explained to Sanders and Billingsley that the Interlocal Agreement did not allow for an "equal" division of property. I told the group that the Agreement stated that: 




In the event of said partial or complete termination or amendment of this agreement, the real and personal property owned, maintained and held by the Authority shall be disposed of as follows: 


(a) Property located within the city limits of Columbus, 


Mississippi shall become the property of said city. 


(b) Property located outside the city limits of Columbus, 


Mississippi shall become the property of Lowndes County, 






A copy of that Interlocal Agreement is attached. 




Harry Sanders' reaction to being told what the Agreement said was profane. He insisted that this could not be right and was not fair. Sanders made allegations of wrongdoing, claiming that Greg Lewis, as director of the CLRA, made unlawful purchases near the expiration of the Agreement and they wanted compensation. At the end of the discussion, even though there was no legal basis for it, Mayor Smith approved the County using the following property that was housed within the City of Columbus at the end of the Agreement, with such use to last until such time as all issues could be resolved: 




1 2002 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck- $3,500 value 


1 2007 Dodge Ram pickup truck - $8,000 value 


1 2015 Ford Transit 15 passenger van- $22,000 value 


3 gasoline powered golf carts - $7,500 value 


21 Large sized soccer goals- $42,000 value 


16 Small sized soccer goals - $8,000 value 


18 Benches- $3,500 value 


8 Picnic tables - $3,400 value 


4 Large bleachers - $8,000 value 


2 Desks 


1 Printer 


1 Desk Chair 


4 Office Chairs 


1 Conference Chair 


1 Projector 


2 Popcorn machines- $700 value 


2 Double fryers 


2 Microwaves 


1 Freezer 


2 Hotdog warmers 


1 Refrigerator 


1 brand new computer - $600 cost estimated 


1 used computer - $250 value 




The total value of what the County is in possession of is obviously well over 


$111,000.00. And yet, in spite of possessing all these items with the presumed intention of keeping them, the County has the nerve to suggest that Greg Lewis made questionable purchases as time drew near to the conclusion of the 27 year old Agreement. There were numerous expenditures made during the last months before the Agreement was terminated. The one the County seems most aggravated about was a purchase by Mr. Lewis of a zero turn lawnmower. 




At the same time, the County doesn't object to receiving golf carts that Mr. Lewis purchased or a brand new computer purchased for Roger Short's use as the new County parks director. As well, there does not appear to be any issue with the CLRA paying for materials for the pavement of a walking track at Townsend Park requested by the County or for the purchase of materials for a pavilion constructed by the County at Plumb Grove. I could go through each item that the County questioned, but at the end of the day, Mr. Lewis was authorized by the CLRA Board to continue to make expenditures during the last month of the CLRA' s existence, as he would normally do in the ordinary course of business. As a matter of fact, Will Cooper, attorney and general counsel for the CLRA has written a letter stating that his review of the expenditures which occurred were within the ordinary course of business, and many of them involved expenditures that were needed because of safety concerns. The minutes of the CLRA Board's September 5, 2017 meeting bear out what Mr. Cooper's letter states. Both his letter and the Minutes of the CLRA's September 5, 2017 meeting are attached. The CLRA's lawyer says he feels all Greg's expenditures were proper, so I don't know how the Supervisors can dispute that. 




As for the County's concern about payment of comp time, the CLRA Board approved the payment of comp time to those employees who had earned it, and it did pay a salaried employee (Greg Lewis) comp time, but, that was also approved by the CLRA Board for all employees who had accumulated comp time. As for Greg Lewis, he was a salaried employee when the CLRA was dissolved, but he earned his comp time when he was paid hourly. Those comp time benefits were carried forward on the books. Further, the comp time paid was not adequate to fully pay the employees (including Greg Lewis) what they were actually due. 




The expenditures that the County questions, at this point, cannot be thoroughly discussed. 


This is because County Administrator Ralph Billingsley ran and called the State Auditor and convinced him to send an investigator to Columbus. The investigator did come and took with him the books and records of the CLRA. 




As for the worker's compensation matter, now that the City has read in the paper that the 


County has no issue with the City's using the CLRA money to pay the premium, that bill will be paid to Galloway Chandler McKinney within the next few business days. 




With regard to what money is left, the vast majority of that is held in the sports account of the CLRA and should be reimbursed to the City. The sports account contains registration fees parents paid for their children to participate in little league sports. That money should rightfully have been used for those sports for which the fees were paid; those sports programs were offered by the City to children from both the City and the County. Because of this dispute, the CLRA funds were not used for those programs and the City paid to run those programs from its general fund. The City should be reimbursed for these costs, which covered, pay for officials, equipment, uniforms and awards. Greg Lewis states that Roger Short agreed this money should be used for those purposes and not divided. The sports account also has money in it that citizens donated to the CLRA for the specific purpose of funding the Mayor's Unity Picnic and the Thanksgiving Unity Luncheon. 




The Interlocal Cooperation Agreement states that "All debts and obligations of the 


Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority upon termination of this agreement shall be paid and any moneys remaining shall be divided equally between the Governing Authorities." During the confrontational meeting referenced above, Harry Sanders agreed that money donated for the Unity Picnic and the Thanksgiving Luncheon were not of interest and that the County would not seek to obtain it. Now County has reneged on that. 




It is very unfortunate that things have degenerated to such an extent. I don't know what caused the breakdown, but I have never seen such venom from Harry Sanders as he has displayed in the past several months. If it's going to be the County's position that half of the registration fees paid by parents for their children to play ball and half of the money that people donated to support the Mayor's Unity Picnic and the Thanksgiving Unity Luncheon must be paid to the County, and that the promised annual $200,000 from the County would be withheld in the absence of such division, I would recommend to the City that ALL of the $111,000 worth of personal property held by the County be returned to the City, which is the rightful owner anyway. Mr. Sanders was quoted in the paper as saying there was never an official agreement to pay the City the $200,000. Likewise there was never any official agreement to let the County have the City's property. 




At the end of the day, calm, reasoned and open minded communication between the two entities probably would have led to an amicable resolution of this dispute. I still believe it is not too late to mend fences and work together for the benefit of our citizens. The taxpayers are the ones that suffer from this fight. 




Recently, two Columbus next-door neighbors got into a squabble about various issues that neighbors sometimes argue about. One neighbor had a family reunion, and the other neighbor thought it was too loud. She waived a broom at the other neighbor, and the next thing that happened was the police were called. One of the neighbors then called Mayor Smith to the scene. When he arrived, he basically told the neighbors to shake hands and to treat one another as they would like to be treated. Finally, the neighbors agreed and things continue to be well between them. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that advice would work for the County of Lowndes and the City of Columbus? We can do better than this. 




Jeff Turnage 


City of Columbus Attorney



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