City rejects grant assistance for new homeowners for second time

Published 7:02 pm Friday, August 15, 2008

Last week the Poplarville board of alderman rejected for a second time a program that would help 10 middle income individuals and families receive $25,000 in grant funds to purchase a new home in the city.

The Aug. 5 vote followed on the heels of a discussion rehashing the issue from last month when aldermen Byron Wells, Bill Winborn, Shirley Wiltshire and John Grant denied the grant a year’s extension to build the new homes in Poplarville.

With the most recent resurgence of talks about the grant, however, the stakes were even higher.

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Fred Griffin, the administrator for the Mississippi Development Authority program, wrote Mayor Billy Spiers a letter requesting the board reconsider its prior action that rejected the grant. Griffin announced that if the board reconsidered, grant recipients would receive an additional $7,500 in the form of a tax credit.

Under the Mississippi Home Buyers’ Assistance grant, the MDA gives $25,000 to new home buyers who qualify for a mortgage with a bank or rural lending institution. The families are required to meet certain criteria to qualify, such as having an income at 80 percent of the median income in Pearl River County. For a family of four, the median county income is $43,900. Therefore, the income of a family with two children cannot exceed $35,120 to be able to apply for the grant.

Initially, the board of aldermen thought the grant was for first-time homebuyers. Griffin said to qualify a person could have owned a home in the past but cannot currently own a home at the time he or she applies for the grant.

He said the program is designed not only to provide economic assistance to middle income individuals and families, because it is funded by the MDA, it is basically designed to promote economic development in a geographic area since materials will be purchased at local home building supply stores.

Griffin said local contractors may be considered for the program which would bring additional jobs to the area. The new homes would provide the city with added tax revenues.

Griffin said 2,900 homes have been built in the state under the MDA grant program. Sixty percent of those grant recipients in the state are single women with two children.

Under the MDA program, homes are built according to local covenants and building codes. Howard had said his homes would be outfitted primarily with hardwood and ceramic floors and would contain custom built cabinetry and enclosed garages.

Although aldermen refused the grant that would allow 10 new homes to be built in Poplarville, Pearl River County had already received the grant which gives 10 families the chance to have a home anywhere in the county.

County administrator Adrain Lumpkin said two of the homes have been built in Picayune.

Alderman John Sherman did not vote with his colleagues last month to kill the program, saying he felt like they made the wrong decision. His views were unchanged last week as he said again he believed the program would be good for Poplarville.

Sherman added that if he had a child who fell into the category of a new homebuyer meeting the appropriate guidelines for the program, he would be grateful for the assistance to help them afford a chance to buy a new home.

Shirley Wiltshire said she was not against the program and would consider pursuing the grant in the future for the city. She was against Jim Howard, the developer who would be building the homes.

“We can reapply for it in the future,” said Wiltshire. “But I want to look more closely at who is awarded the job of carrying out the grant.”

She said she believed like Howard “did not do his homework before coming here.” She said he was planning on placing all 10 homes in Howard Heights Subdivision which made her think he did not know there were codes for him to follow.

Bill Winborn echoed her sentiments saying, “The program is good, but I don’t like that guy.”

Winborn said he’d like to see some sort of financial statement regarding the builder.

City Attorney Martin Smith advised the board he did not think it had the authority to reject the grant simply on the grounds they do not like a builder.

“I believe any builder has the right to build,” said Smith. “I’m not speaking for or against the program. I think the city’s responsibility is to say we have the need for this and that’s it.”

Griffin explained at the first meeting Howard was brought in late in the game because the first developer had been diagnosed with cancer and was unable to fulfill his obligations of building the homes.

Because the city had accepted the grant nearly two years ago, the expiration for implementation would be the end of August. For that reason, Griffin had requested a year’s extension to build the homes with a new contractor in place.

Griffin also said at the last meeting of July that the builder was considering four separate locations when he realized he could not place 10 homes in Howard Heights.

City building inspector Marcie Johnson owns her own subdivision off North Main Street. She said that three of the homes were to be built and sold by Howard in her subdivision.

Johnson told to the board why the program was good for Poplarville and specifically why Howard would be the one to sell his own homes as they are completed.

Johnson said the builder is the one putting his money on the line to build the homes. She said he would have to abide by all codes or he would not be given the authority by the city or county to sell those homes.

After discussion, Sherman made the motion to revisit the issue, but the remaining four aldermen would not respond to his motion. When Mayor Billy Spiers announced the motion had died for lack of a second, Johnson said she was going home and left the building.

She later returned to the meeting and resigned her position with the city expressing her disappointment with the aldermen for denying the grant extension.

Previously in the board meeting, aldermen voted to make Johnson the city’s new code enforcement officer.

The mayor had announced to the board the city had needed a code enforcement officer for years which would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. He said that Johnson would take the position on a part-time basis for $15,000 annually and would take on the responsibility of code enforcement along with city inspections.

The board had voted to approve that position with the stipulation Johnson would have all required certifications within one year. With Johnson’s resignation, the board had to turn around and rescind the motion that made her code enforcement officer.

“It’s America’s dream to own your own home,” Johnson said. “Here it was about to come true for 10 families, and they denied them the chance of owning their own homes.”

The aldermen’s next meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19.