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Aldermen Split Vote On Land Sale, Mayor Says Yes

Mayor Bill Norris (left) and Alderman Fred White (right) listened as Alderman Tommy Swearengen motioned to sell to Carothers Construction, Inc.

by Jack Gurner

WATER VALLEY – The Board of Alderman voted Tuesday night, Dec. 4, to sell 2.7 acres of surplus land on Railroad Street behind the Big Yank building to Carothers Construction, Inc. The vote finally came two months after the deal first surfaced at the October meeting.

The Mayor and board chose to discuss the matter in public since the purposed buyer, Carothers, had become widely know. Economic development officials had labeled the deal a “no-brainer”.

Alderman Sherry Martin was asked to leave the meeting when the agenda item came up for discussion because of a potential conflict of interest due to her employment with Carothers.

Mayor Norris began by asking what was the will of the board on the sale of the property. Alderman Tommy Swearengen said that Carothers wants to buy the land and build a million-plus office complex. “Like Borg-Warner told us, we need to start getting some tax dollars besides them,” he added.

“They’re asking for nothing,” Swearengen emphasized, “All they are asking us to do is give them a price and they’ll buy it. They don’t want any incentives and I know for a fact they have been offered incentives by Coffeeville. And, they already have property in Lafayette County.

“What we need to do is get three estimates, average it, and let them have it…if they’ll take it.” Swearengen said.

Board Attorney David Burns then explained the legal process: “In order to go the route Tommy is proposing and that is not publishing for bidding there has to be a finding in the minutes that the property is no longer needed for municipal or related purposes. It is not to be used in the operation of the municipality. That the sale of the property (to Carothers) – in the manner otherwise provided by law – that is the bidding process – is not necessary or desirable for the financial welfare of the municipality.”

“And finally,” Burns concluded, “that the use of the property for the purpose for which it is to be sold (construction of an office building) will promote and foster the development and improvement of the community in which it is located. And, in this case, the economic or industrial welfare thereof.”

“That property is supposed to be bid on,” Alderman Fred White injected. “We don’t have the right to sit here and get quotes and sell to one individual person.”

“What did the law just say, Fred?” Swearengen asked.

“The law also states that it is going to be used for industrial purposes. It has to be job creation. There is no job creation here,” White countered.

After several minutes of contentious discussion over the legalities, Swearengen asked White if he had rather see the company move their jobs to Coffeeville.

“I don’t care where he move them to,” White answered.

“We have sold property since I have been on this board and we have always advertised that property except for out here on this industrial park where a job was created and was proven created before we sold that property,” White added.

In January of 2000, approximately three acres of land just north of the same area was sold to the Mississippi Action For Progress, Inc. Headstart Program for $3430.00, according to board minutes. The same process of getting no bids and averaging three appraisals was used then as is being proposed for the current sale. At that time, White was a member of the board.

As the discussion continued, Alderman Lance Clement said, “I think it would be great if Carothers went in there. But, I think the bidding process would be the cleanest route to go and they could bid on it.”

Attorney Burns then explained some additional legal aspects.

“We are dragging our feet bad…big time.” Alderman Swearengen said.

Burns then restated in legalese the original motion made by Swearengen and Alderman Charlie Harris said, “I’ll second it.”

Swearengen and Harris voted for the sale with White and Clement voting against. Mayor Bill Norris, broke the tie by voting for the sale.

After the vote, Alderman White questioned the conflict of interest aspects of the deal. He claimed that Alderman Martin brought the deal to the board originally. Then he said that the next person to appear before the board was local realtor Lee McMinn representing Carothers. “Lee McMinn is the Mayor’s son-in-law,” he added.

After another few minutes of contentious discussion, White said, “If you want him to have that land, why can’t he bid on it like everybody else that may want it. More than him is interested in that property”

Raising his voice, Swearengen said, “In other words, Fred, they are going out of their way to move to Water Valley when they own land in Lafayette County and they’ll give them land in Coffeeville to move down there…with incentives to move.”

“If I was them…I wouldn’t fool with us,” Swearengen added. “I’d have gone somewhere else.”

 Mayor Norris asked Attorney Burns if there was any conflict of interest. Burns said that looking at the statute he didn’t believe there was any conflict with McMinn making the presentation and the Mayor breaking the tie.

The Herald contacted state economic development officials who emphasized the importance of taking care of existing businesses as the most cost-effective way to create new jobs. Please see the editorial on page four.

In other board business:

 The aldermen approved payment of $1695.42 to City Attorney Burns.

• The board heard from Jackie Dorris, a north-end resident, who complained about stray dogs. He said there are people who get puppies, keep them six to eight months and then kick them out the door.

Dorris added that he wasn’t getting cooperation from city officials. Mayor Norris said he would look further into the problem and added that four strays had been caught in the area.

• The aldermen voted to pay $50,832.90 to J. M. Moore and $6,438.00 to Willis Engineering for work at the airport under a grant that has been more than 50 percent completed.

• The board approved a $47,664.80 bid on a tractor for the Water Department from Stringer International. The approval included language that stated the mayor would obtain financing for the purchase.

• The aldermen took under advisement bids submitted by both Renasant Bank and Mechanics Bank to act as the city depository.

• The board agreed to take under advisement bids that included metal and concrete and plastic culverts.

• City officials took no action on replacing trees that have died at the Crawford Sports Complex. After a discussion of several alternatives, Mayor Norris said that he would look further into either purchasing new trees or transplanting trees from other locations.

• Mayor Norris informed the board of problems with the new addition to the library. The floor is sagging, there are drainage problems and the chimney leaks, according to the mayor.

• Fire Chief Mike Defer asked the board to advertise for a fireman/dispatcher. This comes as two employees of the department resigned Dec. 2. Mark McGavock has taken a job in Batesville and Chris Jenkins has taken a job in Oxford. The board agreed to advertise the position.

• The board agreed to allow the city of Coffeeville to purchase the remains of two police vehicles at fair market value. Both had been advertised for bids, but none were received.

• The aldermen asked the Mayor to get estimates for a gate and lights for the Oak Ridge Cemetery on Delay Road.

• City Attorney David Burns presented an update on Vista III Media sale. He reminded the board that the city had retained Local Government Services to help with negotiations. Burns reported that representatives of Vista III and the City Electric Department had begun an updated pole count. Preliminary figures indicate that the count may be several hundred short and the city will receive additional money due to the undercount.

• The Mayor announced the Christmas dinner for city employees will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 19., at the Casey Jones Railroad Museum meeting room beginning at noon.

• The board voted to go into executive session at 8:06 p.m. When they returned to regular session an hour later, the aldermen voted to hire part-time help for the street department. They also voted to authorize Mayor Norris to execute the lease of a building on the old Bondafoam property to BorgWarner.

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