By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Mississippi’s county governments are doing a good job of providing services to their citizens with very little funding, Derrick Surrette told Water Valley Rotarians.
The state’s counties are operating only off property taxes, business taxes, and the like, while most other states allow their counties to collect sales tax, according to Surrette, a Yalobusha County native and Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.
“There are a lot of people who believe that sales tax is the only fair tax. And, I may just be one of those,” he said.
“We have the fourth lowest real estate taxes in the country, but our counties cannot collect sales tax. I say that as a true testament to the supervisors in this county and throughout the state,” Surrette added. “We’ve done a good job of being efficient and effective in county government.”
Surrette spoke at the Tuesday, Sept. 8, Rotary Club meeting. He was introduced by Rotarian Toni Hill as a “Water Valley boy” who graduated from Water Valley High School, attended Northwest Community College and Mississippi State.
The reference to Mississippi State got a good-natured groan out of one of the Ole Miss Alumni in the audience.
Hill added that Surrette worked for Farm Bureau in Jackson before moving to his current job with the MAS.
When Surrette took the podium he said that it was good to be back home. “I make it to Sylva Rena and 32 west quite often, but I don’t always seem to make it into Water Valley.”
Surrette talked about working as a young man at Mechanics Bank. He said the experience taught him valuable lessons. “It taught me a lot about life and business and how to treat people. Our motto was to treat people fairly and give the best customer service you can give. That goes with anything you do in life. That’s still instilled in me and always will be.”
Surrette said that he would always be grateful to Farm Bureau. “They took a country boy from Sylva Rena who grew up on a little bitty farm. I grew up as the son of a supervisor and didn’t know much about the capitol. They made me director of their public policy department, which is a big honor to represent all the farmers and the forestry industry in this state.”
He said that his education is in public policy. “I did my master’s thesis at Mississippi State on county government and county taxes.”
Surrette joked that when he graduated his master’s advisor told him that he had done a good job. “But, he had no idea what I was going to do for a living. He didn’t see a job out there for me.”
“Well, I thought, I don’t either,” Surrette said, adding that he was fresh out of college, 22 years old, and without any prospects for employment.
“I didn’t have anything lined up. Nobody wanted me to lobby for agriculture or county government. So, I bounced around.”
He said that he worked for the extension service in Arkansas, then came back to work at Mechanics Bank, and then Farm Bureau, which got him to where he is today.
Surrette became Executive Director of the MAS on Jan. 6. “I’m doing what I love. I have to be interested and believe in what I am doing. Some people call it lobbying. I prefer not to call it that,” he said with a grin.”
Surrette explained that he had learned a lot about what a county supervisor did from his father, Butch Surrette, who is Beat Three Supervisor. The younger Surrette said he was only 11 when his father was first elected to the position.
At first, all he knew about the job was that his father went to a lot of political functions and shook a lot of hands. Gradually he learned what it really meant to be an elected official.
“It’s a service to the people. It’s public service. I truly understand what supervisors do,” he said. “Now I am learning about the whole state and how our association is set up.”
Surrette gave the history of the MAS, which was established in 1928 as a non-profit, educational facility for county government. He added that although it was set-up for the supervisors, all county government is represented. “It establishes a platform for all counties to come together through education and training.”
He explained that the association has served throughout the years as a liaison between county government, state government, and the federal government.
“We inform legislators on how a particular bill is going to impact county government. How it’s going to impact the tax rate.”
The price tag for all of these services is very low, he added. “We don’t cost the county very much to be a member of our association. The average cost is $1500 a year and Yalobusha County is less than that.”
“We turn around and give $900 of that back to the county in the form of community college scholarships,” said Surrette. “My goal as Executive Director is to move that up to three $500 scholarships.”
Surrette finished his talk by saying that citizens should get to know their elected officials. “Governments work best that are close to the people,” he said.