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Aldermen Seek Applicants For Police Chief

WATER VALLEY – The City of Water Valley will advertise for a new police chief after A.J. Hernandez submitted his resignation during the monthly meeting on May 7. Hernandez was promoted to chief in June, 2017, after logging 17 years with the department. He will continue to work with the police department as a lieutenant.

During the May 7 meeting, aldermen also voted to appoint Spring Crenshaw as interim police chief. The personnel issues were handled during executive session during the lengthy meeting.

Aldermen also met in a special meeting Monday night to approve advertising the position and adopt a job description. The description spells out essential functions including managing personnel functions, policy and procedures, allocating resources for the department, overseeing department operations, handling public relation duties, making monthly presentations to aldermen, maintaining policies and procedures, communicating with others and other duties. 

The job description also lists minimum qualifications with at least 10 years of experience as a police officer and five years of experience in administration as well as a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, business management or closely related field.

Applications and the full job description can be picked up and turned back in at city hall. Mayor Donald Gray reported that the tentative timeline to fill the position is two months.

Other business conducted at the May 7 meeting includes:

• Approved a request to change the insurance agent of record for the city’s general liability insurance from First Choice Insurance to Mechanics Bank Insurance. Aldermen voted following a recommendation from Gray, who reported that using a local agency will be beneficial to the city. The decision does not change the city’s current policy.

• City officials issued a plea for citizens who walk their dogs in public places including sidewalks, parking lots and parks in the city to clean up behind their pets.

“We have a lot of people who walk their dogs. We have a lot of people who walk their dogs in parks that do not clean up after their dogs. I have received some complaints on this. People just need to be more courteous and take care behind their dogs,” Gray explained.

“We can create an ordinance,” Ward 3 Alderperson Cinnamon Foster noted.

“We can, but I would hate to have to take that step,” Gray agreed, before aldermen agreed to reach out to the public for cooperation on this matter.

• Heard a complaint from a Central Street resident about a tree that was trimmed on the electric line right-of-way in his back yard.

Preston Boutot explained the purpose of his visit was to determine if the action was lawful, courteous and the right thing to do. He explained that electric department employees knocked on his door at 7:45 a.m. on April 28, adding that his family had been up late the night before.

“I wasn’t real happy to be woken up. I have a vehicle in my yard and I guess it was in the way for some of the trimming they needed to do on the power line,” Boutot continued. He said the vehicle was inoperable and was told that he was not allowed to park the vehicle in the street.

“I told him that was the cop’s job,” Boutot said as he relayed the discussion about the legal status of the vehicle.

Later in the morning, Boutot said he returned to his residence and discovered that a 20-plus feet tall tree under a distribution line that feeds a neighbor had been cut.

“They capped it off to a stump,” he continued, adding that he had spoken with an arborist who explained that trees are not supposed to be trimmed when they are growing in the spring. Boutot also said the tree will grow back rotten in the center.

Boutot said the tree provided shade for his children when they were outside playing, a little bit of noise cancellation from Main Street as well as privacy from neighbors.

He then shared concern about future plans by the electric department for trimming other trees in his yard.

“My question is, is that legal? And if so, is that the right way to do it?” Boutot asked before presenting pictures of the work to aldermen.

City Attorney Daniel Martin explained that the city has a contract, which is the application signed by the customer when the account was opened at the electric department.

“The sentence says ‘the applicant agrees to permit authorized agents of the city free access of the premises of the consumer for the purpose of inspecting, reading, repairing, or removing property of the city and maintaining right-of-way lines,’” Martin explained.

“But is that maintenance? Is cutting a tree down maintenance? I was here at the last meeting and it was discussed how much time the city has to spend on trimming trees. To me, a good solution to not have to trim trees very much is to cut all the way down. And I hate to say it, but that is what it feels like to me,” Boutot explained.

He also said the interaction with electric department employees was recorded on his security camera and the thought crossed his mind that the aggressive tree trimming could have been done in spite.

Boutot also asked if maintenance means trimming a tree all the way down.

“That needs to be much more clarified,” Boutot recommended.

“I read the contract and it does seem like that everyone who signs that contract gives our electric department essentially full right to clear a path for their lines,” Ward 1 Alderman Kagan Coughlin noted.

Coughlin also noted that rights-of-way cut for utility lines in coastal areas are much smaller, where power lines  pass through small openings in trees.

Boutot said he disagreed with the contract allowing authorization for workers to “deforest his back yard.”

“If the board is okay with this… it is very disheartening,” Boutot added.

“It is a double-edged sword, we do have to maintain rights-of-way. When the power goes out, Andy’s (Hall) phone is going to ring. My phone is going to ring. We do have to maintain, and preventive maintenance is a big part of it,” Gray responded.

Electric Department Superintendent Andy Hall was next to speak, explaining his crew has 163 miles of power lines to maintain.

“Before we get through trimming everything, we are having to go back to spots that already got into it. You can’t trim it in one summer. It takes three summers of steady trimming to trim this system out,” Hall continued. “We don’t like to have to cut trees down. But we have to get clearance where we are not fighting a losing battle coming back six months or a year later,” Hall said. “I love trees, I don’t like to cut them. But if we get a wind storm in here, and as wet as this ground is now and they are talking about this weekend that we can get high winds. I guarantee people will be calling saying come cut this tree, it is leaning over. It is fixing to fall. You have to get a good right-of-way because you want your lights on.”

“But a right-of-way can be maintained without shaving 18 feet off a tree,” Boutot countered, explaining that it will take years for the tree to grow back and it is permanently damaged.

Boutot then asked if people could trim their own trees to limit damage.

“I like that idea, that if folks were given an option,” Coughlin agreed.

“I am not personally going to say you can hire your own person to do it. Because one, if they lose control of it and tear up equipment, who is going to pay for it? Two, if a man gets injured or killed, who is going to be responsible if the electric department says ‘sure, get your own person to do it,’” Hall said.

“But you can’t stop me from hiring a tree service to trim trees on my own property?” Boutot said.

“No sir, I can’t. But 99 percent of the tree companies that come in here, if they have any questions about being able to control a tree or get it down safely around a power line, they call us,” Hall explained.

“I don’t think he means trimming trees in your own yard, I think he means trees that are touching power lines that causes a risk,” Foster explained about Hall’s explanation.

Coughlin suggested publicizing a trimming schedule to alert property owners about pending work on power line rights-of-way.

Hall explained that the schedule can vary, depending on other work scheduled for his crew or emergencies that occur.

Boutot said an arborist told him the damaged tree should be cut all the way down, including grinding the stump.

“And they can transplant another pin oak tree into my yard. I think that is what the resolution should be for this,” Boutot said about the city bearing the cost to replace the tree. “Now if the legalities say they (city) are allowed to maintain it and you all (city) hold on to the fact that maintaining means coming in and cutting everything down to the fence row, then I am in trouble and I will have to seek other action. It just doesn’t seem to me like this was neighborly and this was the right thing to do, regardless of laws. And I don’t think the laws really give permission for that.” 

“I really would like to see us give more lead time to homeowners,” Coughlin said.

“That is something we are going to have to work on, but we aren’t going to solve it tonight,” Gray said.

• Heard a request from Dave Leonard to explain why the hangar fee at the Water Valley airport has increased 67 percent to $150 per month. Leonard explained he was one of four people who lease hangars at the airport.

“I am a little concerned about that. I would like to know a little bit more about the expenses the city is trying to cover by increasing the rent on four hangars. What are we getting for our money,” Leonard asked. He also asked if the city previously had a public meeting about the rate increase.

Gray explained that the city was losing money on the services provided at the airport, citing the cost for electricity, fuel farm, phone line and payment kiosk at the airport. 

“The rent fees were not self-sufficient at the airport,” Martin also explained.

“Taxpayers were picking up the difference,” Gray added.

Leonard explained that a comparison of airports similar to Water Valley showed that the monthly rental rates for hangars were closer to $100.

“Is there a plan to expand an airport?” Leonard also asked.

“There is discussion about another hangar coming. There is always discussion about extending the runway,” Coughlin explained, adding that topic had been discussed in three previous meetings in response to Leonard’s earlier question about a public meeting on the increase.

“The more traffic we get, the more money sometimes we can get from the federal government. All that facility out there was basically built on grants,” Gray added.

“We found the airport had been a net loss for the city, and has been for the last three years,” Coughlin said.

“We are not making money at the airport that we are using somewhere else,” Foster added, explaining that city officials weighed the revenues and expenditures at the airport as a stand-alone business.

“You have flight instruction going on out there. You have an airplane mechanic who works out there at the airport, that is revenue,” Craig Hart, another hangar renter, told aldermen.

“The airport, as it is now, will never be a money maker because you only have four hangars,” Leonard added.

“So we are trying to maintain it by looking at the numbers,” Foster reiterated.

“Pontotoc County airport, similar size town, similar size airport, just put in 12 new hangars. They have an airport manager. They are on the upswing because they are developing it. You are not going to make money in a year on an airport, but you might start to break even in three or four years if it is managed,” Leonard countered.

“We have to jump through a lot because we lease that (property) from the Corps. We depend on grants to do things. We have to get approval from the Corps to do work, and we have to get funds to do it, it’s a slower process than if it was on city-owned land,” Gray countered.

“You have four people that are paying the rent out there. And that is apparently who is going to bear the burden of this increase. Would it not make sense to have more hangars?” Hart asked. “How hard are we driving toward that?”

Street Department Manager Michael Scroggins, who also oversees the airport, explained work is underway to find grants for the airport.

“Our engineers are always looking when the FAA releases funds,” Gray added.

Hart said he has someone who has offered to do a massive amount of dirt work as part of adding more hangars at the airport for free.

Gray then stressed that the city’s grant writers are continually looking for grants.

“How hard are we working at it?” Hart asked.

“All the time,” Gray answered.

“Those types of grants, we have never gone to get them. North Central Planning and Development and Willis Engineering have brought them to us. They come to us any time money is released, because that is how they make their living,” Coughlin explained.

Coughlin cited a recent special meeting in which aldermen scheduled to apply for a grant for sewer work as an example.

“Folks down there are farming them out to different towns, are they not?” Hart asked about the work North Central Planning and Development does for other towns in their district in addition to Water Valley.

“They can play five or six different towns at one time, and as long as one of them gets the contract, they are going to get paid,” Martin said about ongoing work by North Central Planning and Development. “They will design a similar structure for multiple towns and submit that proposal.

“Whoever makes the loudest noise, that is who is going to get the grant,” Hart noted about local input on the grant application.

The conversation then shifted to future decisions regarding the airport involving someone familiar with aviation at the request of Leonard. 

“I would like to know a little more about what is the three-year plan, the five-year plan so this isn’t a recurring problem. Otherwise you will just price everyone out of the market and you will have to close the airport,” Leonard said about potential future increases on the hangar rentals.

“There are some things at the airport I have noticed, like that $300,000 fence which is about to be pulled down by growth. If you wanted to take point and just come to us with a list of needs and opportunities, and be the person we can look to,” Coughlin said about partnering with Leonard on maintaining and growing the airport. 

“We would appreciate it,” Gray said, drawing chuckles from the crowd as Leonard was offered a volunteer position to assist the city with the airport.

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