Thursday, January 5, 2006

County recaps progress in 2005

Staff Writer

As the old year ended and county officials rang in the new year, The South Reporter gave department heads an opportunity to look back over last year’s accomplishments, and some offered a vision for the future.

Chancery Clerk’s Office

Last year saw the staff and Chuck Thomas at the chancery clerk’s office renovating and organizing some spaces in one of the downstairs’ offices and upstairs on the second and third floors.

“Paper is pushing us out the door,” Thomas said. “We are remodeling the records office because the chancery clerk’s office is getting ready to go paperless during the first quarter of 2006.”

Old counters were stripped out of the records office and removal of old carpet and a layer of plywood revealed the original hardwood floor. As the space was cleaned, repaired and refurnished, new work stations were added to make the office more roomy and computer ready.

Thomas said the new digital records keeping system will convert old paper documents - subdivision plats and deeds - to electronic files that can be viewed on-line.

“Now attorneys and abstractors won’t have to physically come to our office to view the records,” said Thomas. “That’s the ultimate goal. That will be convenient for them.”

Two new temporary workers hired with grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are providing clerical help in categorizing, restoring and organizing all chancery records dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Another improvement in banking - the competitive bidding by banks for the county depository, begun in April 2004 - has about doubled the amount of interest earned on county deposits, Thomas said.

Good budget planning by the board of supervisors and department heads last year made it possible to not increase ad valorem taxes for individuals for the 2005-2006 year, he said.

“Due to careful planning some departments were able to get necessary budget increases without increasing ad valorem taxes,” Thomas said.

Another accomplishment this year has been finding transportation for veterans to the V.A. Hospital in Memphis. That transportation is now available through an agreement with Marshall County and Community Action. Veterans who need transportation to the V.A. Hospital may call the Community Action Agency at 662-252-2713 or the chancery clerk’s office at 662-252-4431 for more information.

A couple of other projects that will take a while to finish but are important ones are in the works.

The archiving of old land records, newspapers, and other courthouse records, some dating back to the inception of record keeping at the courthouse, need careful cataloging. A third floor room set aside to house these valuable keepsakes is packed. Thomas said some of the records are ones duplicated by the Historical Society - that is original copies of original documents. Time, fire and wear and tear have destroyed many of the original records.

“My goal is to find out what all is in here and get these categorized and shelved,” he said. “My grand-daddy who lived in Laws Hill had his cattle brand registered here at the courthouse. We’d like for other people to find their things, too, if they want to.”

Thomas hopes to have voluntary professional help and some paid staff to get these old records archived and accessible to public viewing.

He said reorganizing and archiving is not an unrealistic goal.

“We’ve already done the third floor room on the west end of the courthouse,” he said. Other reorganizing, such as the law library and the sheriff’s office upstairs, has begun under the supervision of sheriff Kenny Dickerson.

Longer term goals are to provide more space for courts, Thomas said. Currently the second floor courtroom is used by chancery court and circuit court with a third circuit judge to be added to the bench in January 2007 following the November 7, 2006 elections.

Thomas wants to rent space for chancery court in the Fitch building that currently is serving as the temporary home of the Marshall County Historical Museum while the museum on College Street is being restored. He said that will take several months to complete. Scheduling of the courtroom is becoming a problem with overlapping court terms and more courtroom space is needed, Thomas said.

Circuit Clerk’s Office

Preparations state-wide to improve elections is a challenge Marshall County has faced successfully in 2005, according to Lucy Carpenter, circuit clerk.

“In conjunction with the state-wide voter registry, Help America Vote Act and ADA accessibility of all 24 voting poll places, we will be up to standard for the November 7, 2006, election,” she said.

Making voting polls accessible is not as simple as it appears, according to Larry Hall, county administrator.

HAVA grant money has provided the means to build ramps, widen doorways and install door fixtures with push bars, Hall said. But structural work is always required to get the ramps to meet and match the threshold. Handicapped parking has to be designated as well as signage. All exterior doors have to open to the outside.

Carpenter does not believe Marshall County voters will have much difficulty using the new Diebold electronic voting machines mandated by the state and Congress under HAVA.

Marshall is one of a few counties that has had touch-screen electronic voting machines for many years.

Another challenge circuit court faces is handling an increasing case load. The county held three grand juries beginning last year. And in 2007, the Third Judicial District will add a judge position to help with the case load in the district.

“Judge Andy Howorth said after the 2006 judges’ election he is going to give six months straight time to Marshall to get our dockets caught up,” Carpenter said. “There is some talk of setting up a drug court. I think that will be one of the things that will be coming with the new judge. Candidates for the new judge position will be required to live either in Marshall, Benton or Tippah County.

Another thing Carpenter is proud of for Mississippi is that it is ranked ninth nationwide in developing on-line services for its citizens. These services will eventually make it possible for citizens to pay fees and taxes on-line, register to vote, file forms and much more.

Board of Supervisors

A lot of road and bridge work has been accomplished by the board of supervisors this year, according to Hall.

“We have paved over 50 miles or road this year and the goal is to pave every road in Marshall County,” he said. “It’s all about safety and necessity. And it is cheaper to maintain a road once it is paved.”

The year also saw numerous bridges over the county being made safe to drive over. Some are still under construction as the new year begins.

A vigorous bridge improvement program has been made possible by working with counties like Tate, Tunica and DeSoto to obtain sound used steel and concrete bridge parts, Hall said.

Updating the county’s comprehensive zoning and land use plan was another achievement that is already helping property owners and buyers understand land use ordinances, Hall said.

Also, outside the courthouse new ramps were installed so those who arrive in wheel chairs can easily enter the south end of the courthouse. New landscaping improved the appearance at the courthouse. Old flower beds were removed and a new selection of flowering plants and greenery were installed.

The county has lots of employment opportunities coming its way, made possible by the rezoning and the routing of I-269 through the northwest corner of the county. When completed I-269 will be a connector highway to every other major highway in North Mississippi, he said.

“That is the nucleus for all that rezoning,” Hall said. “Marshall County will be a spoke in the transportation hub in North Mississippi, Western Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.”

Another giant step taken by the board of supervisors is to improve the image and reality of Marshall County through leadership training and strategic planning, Hall said.

“There is much more opportunity for citizens to get involved in planning,” he said. “This is something you can thank this board of supervisors for. They have opened a lot of doors for community development and involvement.”

Tax Collector/Tax Assessor’s Office

The biggest accomplishment last year at the tax collectors office was making it possible for citizens to pay for real and personal property taxes by credit card, according to Betty Byrd, tax collector.

This means that a tax payer can pay by the month using their credit card payment system if they want to.

“A lot of people use their credit card to pay to get their frequent flyer miles and other bonuses,” she said.

Land taxes, vehicle tags and mobile home taxes can all be paid by credit card. Of course, the tax office continues to accept payment by check.

Byrd was elected to the executive board of the state of Mississippi chapter of the International Association of Assessing Officers last year, something that is giving her the opportunity to serve the state as well as the county. She will serve as secretary to the organization.

Among IAAD’s roles is to help educate assessing officers and elected officials, Byrd said.

“All my people at the tax assessor’s office have attended at least three IAAD schools,” said Ronnie Johnson, tax assessor.

He reported that the county’s digitized mapping project, begun in 1990, is almost finished. The tax assessor’s office is working now to get all property record cards scanned into the computer.

The project is expected to take considerable time to complete because of lack of staffing, Johnson said. But when it is complete it will provide for electronic storage, retrieval and backup for paper records.

A couple of goals Byrd is working on for future convenience of taxpayers is opening a Byhalia satellite office for tax collection and eventually an on-line payment system for taxpayers.

In the future, as local banks provide on-line banking service, the tax collector’s office may be able to add the on-line payment system to its cache of customer conveniences.

Sheriff’s Department/Justice Court

The demands for safety and security continues to grow as the population of the county and its business and industry expands, according to sheriff Kenny Dickerson.

In order to meet that demand, a new sheriff’s substation is under construction near the Town of Byhalia. It will operate on a part-time basis, beginning in 2006, until county tax coffers expand to provide more equipment and officers to make the substation a full-time operation, he said. When the Byhalia office opens officers will use the station as a place to pick up messages and write reports between calls.

Three full-time school resource officers are now providing security and support for county schools, all coming from the sheriff department budget. A new D.A.R.E. officer has been hired to help with drug awareness education.

“We are proud to promote school safety and to support the learning environment, but without the renewal of the COPS program and emphasis on Homeland Security, we have fewer officers to patrol the streets and schools,” Dickerson said.

A new dog kennel has been built at the sheriff’s department and will be used to hold stray or vicious dogs. Jailers and deputies will help with oversight of the kennel at no extra expense to taxpayers, for now.

“Due to public outcry and stress on the board of supervisors, I volunteered to support the county’s efforts to provide a kennel,” Dickerson said.

The sheriff cited other accomplishments in strengthening law enforcement capability in Marshall County. Officer training for jailers and deputies is an ongoing matter at the department and most officers are certified to state and federal standards, Dickerson said.

“Hundreds of people are in and out of the jail in a year’s time and our problems have been minimal,” he said. “I attribute that to our excellent support staff.”

Officers are committed to providing top-notch investigative efforts, he said, as attested to by the outstanding number of arrests and convictions, particularly for drug-related crimes which make up about 80 percent of the cases turned over to a grand jury each term, he said.

Close cooperation among law enforcement agencies has resulted in the apprehending of numerous criminals.

The sheriff’s department continues to expand its computer capabilities for fingerprinting, storing of mug shots, and record keeping, but Dickerson, of the old school, still believes in keeping paper documents.

The board of supervisors recently updated the law library and Dickerson is working to organize the law books at the courthouse. Inmates may request to use the library to become knowledgeable about the statutes and their cases, he said.

Dickerson believes the nation needs to put more effort on crime prevention and providing jobs when prisoners are released.

“I’m still big on crime prevention rather than the cure,” he said. “From Washington on down the focus is on punishment rather than prevention. It’s a lot better alternative to prevent than to punish. But this Congress would rather spend money on jails and prisons than prevention.”

In Justice Court the year brought some appointments, traning and certifications important to continued quality of service.

Judge Ernest Cunninghap was reappointed in July to the Mississippi Justice Court Judges Board of Directors. Court clerk Monet Autry received National Certification as a court clerk through the Mississippi Judicial College and was recertified in May.

Constables Don Cothern and Johnny Fitch were recertified in June through the Mississippi Constables Association.

Judges Cunningham and Eugene Brown Jr. attended the Mississippi Judicial College in July for credits toward recertification.

Cunningham and Autry were attended and graduated the first Marshall County LeadershipPlenty class in July.

And Autry and deputy clerks Mae Garrison, Gayle Ash, Johnnie Bagley and Lequandra Payne attended the fall conference for Justice Court Clerks in September.

Marshall County Justice Court collected $528,000 in fines in 2005.

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