WATER VALLEY – It’s been 27 years since Yalobusha voters visited the polls to weigh in on changing the system of county government from the current beat system to the unit system. That could change after an effort got underway this month by a group working to obtain enough signatures to petition a second vote on implementing the unit system. If the signatures are obtained and the petition certified, the initiative would appear on the November ballot.
“I want people to have an opportunity to vote. How they vote is their business,” Frank B. Brooks told the Herald last week. Brooks is working with Dale Wilbourn, W.G. Griffin, John Whitsett, Paul Fly, Bailey Walker, Jeremy Warren, Allen Rogers, Nolan Martin, T.G. “Tom” Baker and others to obtain 1,400 signatures from qualified electors in Yalobusha County by the end of June. They are also looking for volunteers to help obtain signatures and have placed petitions at several locations across the county including Valley Agri-Supply, Brown’s Used Cars, T.G. Baker Trucking and the North Mississippi Herald in Water Valley and Po Boys restaurant and the Coffeeville Courier in Coffeeville.
According to state law the petition is required to have signatures from 15 percent of the county’s registered voters, or 1,500 signatures, whichever is less. The county currently has 8,468 registered voters.
The petition is worded, “We, the undersigned qualified electors of Yalobusha County, Mississippi, do hereby request an election to determine whether to require Yalobusha County to operate under a county wide system of road administration.”
Brooks reported the first step in the discussion is to obtain the signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. The next step would be to publicly discuss the pros and cons of each system to educate voters. He believes the unit system, with a centralized road department would bring efficiency and savings with the reduction in equipment and manpower.
In the past, opponents of the unit system point to the increased cost of adding two new positions required if the unit system is implemented, a county administrator and road manager. Opponents to the unit system also cite the loss of discretion from individual supervisors to work on roads in their districts.
Brooks said he and Baker first starting discussing the matter last fall while contemplating ways to control costs in the county.
“You have got to look at what we have now is not working,” Brooks explained, referring to the spiraling cost of maintaining county roads and bridges. “Taxes are not going to change, they are not going down. All we can hope for is to better utilize the finances that we have,” Brooks added.
Brooks also believes the unit system will take the politics out of road maintenance.
“Everybody will have an opportunity to have the same roads, irregardless of what part of the county they live in. It will turn these five supervisors loose to run the day-to-day business of the county. It will also turn these guys loose to let them see if they can find some industry that they can put in here,” Brooks added.
But while discussing the potential benefits of streamlining the county’s road departments, Brooks said the group was adamant that they were going to keep the discussion positive.
“We determined that we are not going to be negative in any manner toward anything or anybody. We just want to give the people the opportunity to vote,” Brooks said.
Baker added that the actual effort to obtain the signatures will require help.
“We have got to have some help from people,” Baker explained. But I am confident that if we can get it on the ballot, it will pass,” Baker added.
History of the Unit System
Just over half of the state’s counties operate under the unit system after the Mississippi Legislature passed the County Government Reorganization Act of 1988, requiring each county to vote which system of county government would be utilized, unit or beat. Voters in 47 counties favored the unit system in that 1988 election.
The catalyst for the 1988 vote mandated by legislators was the indictment of almost one-eighth of the state’s 410 supervisors following a sweeping FBI investigation of county purchasing activities across the state. Much of the corruption exposed in Operation Pretense centered on central and southern counties in the state, with only supervisors in three counties in north Mississippi counties – Panola, Pontotoc and Monroe – facing charges in the scandal.
Yalobusha voters narrowly favored retaining the beat system in that 1988 election with less than 300 votes separating the issue. There were 2,590 in favor of the beat system, or 53 percent of the vote, and 2,294 voters favoring the unit system.
Coverage in the Herald in 1988 favored retaining the beat system, with the paper editorializing against a hasty decision to convert to the unit system, along with the Board of Supervisors and Yalobusha County Farm Bureau in a common message that the change to a centralized road administration would come at a high cost.
Four years later, in the 1992 election, almost half of those counties voting in the unit system petitioned for a revote, with two changing back to the beat system – Jones County and Tate County. A third county switched back to the beat system since then, making the current count 44 unit system counties and 38 beat system counties.
The Mississippi Association of Supervisors spells out the duties in both the unit system and beat system in a publication, “County Government in Mississippi.”
Under the unit system, the county operates a centralized road department with one central road repair and maintenance facility for the county, with additional shops being established if the Board determines a need.
In the unit system, maintenance for the county’s roads and bridges would be overseen by a county road manager, hired by the Board. The unit system would also abolish the county’s five road districts and maintenance would be managed based on the needs of the entire county. All real and personal property from each of the county’s five beats would become the property of the countywide system.
This means the authority over daily workings of the roads would fall under the road manager, not each individual supervisor. The road manager would also be responsible for purchasing materials, equipment and supplies for his department. The road manager would do the hiring and firing of road department employees.
Supervisors would adopt general policies to be followed by the administration of the county road department, including a four-year road plan for the construction and maintenance of county roads and bridges.
Under the unit system, the county would also be required to hire a county administrator, who could be the chancery clerk or another person who has knowledgeable experience in work projection, budget planning, accounting, purchasing, cost control or personnel management. The county administrator, under policies determined by the board, would administer all county affairs falling under the control of the board and carry out the general policies of the board.
Under the beat system, in which the county currently operates, supervisors would continue to independently manage work on roads and bridges in their beats, as well as their budgets and personnel.