Sluggish economy top local story of ’09

Published 1:00 am Sunday, January 3, 2010

The economy was the No. 1 story this year, as the downturn caused by the national recession also affected Picayune, Poplarville and Pearl River County.

Economic and financial problems highlighted the news for 2009, and a national recession was felt here locally, too, as government bodies wrestled with declining revenues that produced some tough decisions regarding balancing tight budgets and as businesses faced declining sales.

The economic slowdown hit local businesses, and among some significant closings during 2009 were WRPM radio station in Poplarville, Shoney’s, River Ridge Cinema and Barry Harper Dodge in Poplarville.

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It was a tough year for businesses, residents and government bodies, all around.

No. 2 — The Picayune city election in May and June highlighted 2009’s top stories, too, an election that saw all but one member gone from the old council when the dust settled after the May-June city elections.

Picayune residents who went to the polls said they wanted change after a series of reports highlighting huge deficits in Picayune’s finances surfaced.

When the dust cleared, the only incumbent returned to the council was District 1 Councilman Larry Watkins. Gone were veteran 24-year District 4 councilman Leavern Guy, District 3 councilwoman Anna Bales Turnage, District 2 Councilman Donald Parker and District 5 Councilman Jerry Bounds.

Bounds had chosen not to seek re-election as did Mayor Greg Mitchell. Mitchell’s decision paved the way for a new mayor, Ed Pinero, Jr., who won the mayoral contest handily against State Sen. Ezell Lee.

The elections for the city council heated up quickly as reports in state audits showed huge deficits, approaching a million dollars in the city utility department.

In fact the financial woes of the city pushed its way into the news, probably as much as any other story during the year.

The prospective new candidates vowed to make changes and to get to the bottom of the city’s financial woes. They are still, however, struggling with budget issues.

In District 5, Wayne Gouguet, who garnered 77 percent of votes cast, won easily over his opponents to assume Bounds’ seat; in District 2, Lynn Bogan Bumpers, an Independent, unseated incumbent Donald Parker; and in District 4 former teacher Larry Breland, in perhaps one of the biggest surprises and upsets, unseated veteran Guy.

In District 3 Jason Todd Lane went through two elections to unseat one-term incumbent Turnage. After voting irregularities were ruled to have occurred in the first vote on May 5, the election was held again in conjunction with the June 2 general election. Lane both times beat Turnage by a narrow margin. Only four votes separated them in the May 5 election.

No. 3 — Perhaps the next biggest story to surface in 2009 was City of Picayune finances, involving deficits and the struggle to bring the budget into balance. Huge deficits showed up in the city utility department in state audits, which themselves were running way behind, and when the utility department books were finally balanced, a $800,000 deficit surfaced in the general fund.

After the new council assumed office in June, reformed-minded councilmen zeroed in on the budget and finances, and during budget hearings in August and September, called for an across-the-board 10 percent budget reduction in all city departments. They later proposed selling the City Hall complex and land surrounding it to raise needed cash. So far they have not been successful in making the sale.

They also took no action on a $3 million contract with Siemens for replacement of water meters and installation of an automated meter reading system after the Mississippi Development Authority killed the contract, saying it would not pay for itself. The council said that to save money, they would do the work in-house.

The contract had been negotiated by the previous council and was actually already signed by Mitchell when is was killed by MDA.

In addition, the council was hit with declining revenues in state sales tax rebates as a recession clamped down on economic activity locally and nationally. During budget hearings, the council and mayor projected monthly city sales tax collections would run about $345,000 monthly, but since the new budget took effect on Oct. 1, monthly sales tax rebates from the state have been running below what the council projected.

That spells future budget trouble for Picayune since about one-half of the budget is composed of state sales tax rebate money.

No. 4 — The county’s struggle to develop, without raising taxes, a workable 2009-10 budget while facing some of the toughest decisions of the current supervisors’ careers dominated the news columns, too. County Administrator Adrian Lumpkin told supervisors during budget discussions in September that the 2009-10 budget was the toughest he had ever faced.

Supervisors faced reigning in expenses at the new Pearl River County jail, resulting in some delicate negotiations with Sheriff David Allison. Allison began laying off some personnel in the sheriff’s department to bring his budget in line with what supervisors gave him, after the budget was set.

In addition, supervisors moved to cut the county library and the SPCA budgets. The SPCA runs the Picayune Animal Shelter. When supervisors did that they faced determined opposition from the library and SPCA supporters to restore the funding.

The cuts would not hold.

On Sept. 28 supervisors restored the $11,000 cut to the SPCA budget and the $100,000 cut to the library’s budget after about 60 persons appeared before supervisors urging restoration of the cuts.

However, supervisors said they would restore the funding on a month-by-month basis.

There were some bright spots in 2009, however, for supervisors. The county finished paving all its roads, and is now considered to have one of the best local road systems in the state. They did it in-house. They did not, as they vowed, raise taxes to balance the new budget. Residents here actually saw politicians keep a promise.

Also, supervisors are working on a new road tying Anchor Lake Road into the West Union Road, which connects with I-59 at Exit 10, that will help relieve traffic congestion and will also open up a new area in the county for economic development.

No. 5 — Then there was the announcement in September from the state that local school budgets in Pearl River County would be cut by $1.9 million for all schools. All three school systems here took a hard financial hit when they received the news of the cuts.

In addition, school officials here said that state officials told them this is probably just the first round of cuts from the state, that they could expect more cuts at the first of the year.

Picayune received the biggest cut at $767,222, followed by the Pearl River County school system at Carriere with a $660,745 cut and Poplarville a $487,769 cut.

School officials then took immediate steps to begin cutting and revising their budgets.

Pearl River County school superintendent Dennis E. Penton in September told the county school board, “Additional revenue is not a possibility at this point, so we are going to have to make up that deficit by cutting expenditures.”

No. 6 — Every now and then a sports story will make the top 10 news stories of the year in the national press, but it seldom occurs at the local level. But there was no doubt that what the Poplarville Lady Hornets softball team accomplished this year had to be included since it comes along about once in a half-century.

The Lady Hornets won the Class 4A state championship on Oct. 18 in action against Newton County, winning two games against Newton 6-2 and 8-4 at the VA fields complex in Jackson to cinch the top spot in the state.

They were also named the top, overall No. 1 team in a sports poll by the Clarion-Ledger; that means they were deemed the best in the state in all classes by the sportswriters at the Clarion-Ledger.

You have to go back to the 1960s when a Lady Hornets basketball team won a state championship to match what the Hornet softball team did in 2009.

Item sports editor Curtis Rockwell said it was a combination of maturity and good coaching that paved the way for the Lady Hornets. “They had a good solid cadre of seasoned, mature players that had been together since the ninth grade, and add to that good coaching by Jonathan Ray and his assistants, and you had the ingredients for a top team. They were good at what they did, no doubt about it.”

There is only a handful of teams in Pearl River County history that did what they did. They were honored by supervisors, the Poplarville school board and the Poplarville board of aldermen for the accomplishment.

Wrote Rockwell right after the win: “Just how special was what this group of girls accomplished over the weekend may not be realized for some time. But trust me, it is a memorable event, because state titles in team sports in Pearl River County prep circles haven’t exactly been abundant over the years.”

No. 7 — The acquisition in late December of the old Bertie Rouse school building at the corner of East Fifth Street and North Haugh Avenue by the Greater Picayune Arts Council (GPAC) assures the preservation of one of the most historic buildings in Picayune and Pearl River County.

GPAC leased the building from the Picayune school district and has $100,000 in the bank to begin renovations on the structure, which will be turned into a cultural and arts center for the city.

The site, some historians believe, is the location of the first organized, official school in Picayune, and a plaque still in the structure commemorates renovations and additions in 1907 and 1928. Picayune was incorporated as a village in 1904.

However, the task of putting the structure back into mint condition won’t be easy. Preliminary costs estimates of expected renovations top $1 million.

No. 8 — The swine flu epidemic appeared here in schools in September shortly after schools opened in late August. It was prolific statewide as well. A breakout in the Poplarville system the first of September almost shut down the school as about 50 students came down with flu-like symptoms and parents began to panic. School officials quickly calmed the situation.

At first health officials were leery of saying exactly what type of flu was prevalent in the schools and general populace, but later said that the vast majority of the cases were 2009 H1N1 swine flu.

Cases were reported in all three county school systems, including at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville. In other Mississippi counties some deaths were reported from the flu, but Pearl River County reported no deaths as the end of 2009 approached.

The virus was not as strong as officials had first feared, but they still urged residents and students to get the vaccination.

Health officials said at first that swine flu vaccinations would be available by mid-October and then rescheduled the date to later. It was on into November before supplies started coming in to health departments, private health care providers and hospitals.

By December vaccinations in the county’s three school systems, managed and administered mainly by Riser Medical Associates of Picayune, were being conducted, and by the end of December those vaccinations had been completed. The vaccinations at the schools were free.

The vaccinations are still available at the health department and at private health care providers.

No. 9 — The buffer zone surrounding the John C. Stennis Space Center in Northern Hancock County approaches to about three miles of the Picayune city limits along Flat Top Road just inside Hancock Çounty below Goodyear Baptist Church, and the main complex is only about 12 miles southeast of Picayune. So what happens there, impacts Picayune and Pearl River County greatly. Stennis is the main economic engine driving the Pearl River County economy, and one of the main one’s driving South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana’s economies. Literally thousands of area residents work there, earning high, stable incomes.

Three things happened there during 2009 that pushed Stennis, as always, into one of the top 10 newsmakers for last year: The last Space Shuttle engine was tested, work continued on facilities for testing engines to be used in deep-space probes and missions, and Stennis opened up a state-of-the-art emergency operations center in June. What they do at Stennis not only matters greatly to our area economy, but also to the nation and the nation’s future space program, and our military since the Navy located there.

The first main engine for the Space Shuttle was tested at Stennis way back on May 19, 1975. The testing went on for 34 years until July 20, 2009, when technicians conducted the last planned main engine test on the facility’s A-2 test stand. Technicians conducted more than 2,000 tests on those engines.

And guess what happened during that 34 years: Nothing! Yep, Nothing!

And that was the way it was supposed to be. The engines tested at Stennis performed without a hitch. Not a single mission has failed as a result of engine malfunction, Stennis officials said.

Said Ronnie Rigney, Stennis acting project manager for space shuttle main engine testing, “It really is incredible what is accomplished here. For the past 34 years, this team has constantly faced new and unknown conditions with confidence and determination, ensuring that the space shuttle main engines perform safely for the astronauts who fly them.”

America’s Space Shuttle program will be phased out in 2010. But NASA will be looking toward the Moon and Mars for the future.

Work continued on test complexes and stands to test the ÅJ26 rocket for Orbital Sciences Corp., which will provide NASA with access to space after the Space Shuttle is phased out, and work on test stands that will allow testing on an engine that will be used for missions beyond low earth orbit, like to the Moon and Mars.

Workcrews completed stages of the work in 2009, and are supposed to complete further stages of the work on the stands in 2010, for an expected completion date in 2011.

Said Lonnie Dutreix, A-3 project manager, “It’s easy to view this construction as just an engineering project. But we’re building something pretty important to the future of space exploration and pretty special in the field of rocket engine testing. That’s exciting.”

Stennis in June also opened a state-of-the-art EOC that will rival any in the U.S. Gov. Barbour made a trip down to help Stennis officials open it up last June. The 78,000 sq. ft. building would help coordinate area operations for any wide-spread disaster that would hit this area, similar to Katrina, while also overseeing operations at Stennis.

And No. 10 — It was what is called a nine-alarm fire. The bells in nine fire stations in Pearl River County, stretching from Poplarville to Nicholson Community, went off when Mississippi Mall caught fire and almost burned down in June. Involved were 76 firefighters.

The Mall was one of Picayune’s first and most modern shopping centers when it was first constructed back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It once housed the major food and retail outlets in Picayune.

The disastrous fire that hit Mississippi Mall in August had an impact far greater than just the fire, however. The Greater Picayune Arts Council had office and work space in the structure and they began to look into other possibilities after losing their office space there, and when it looked like repairs to the structure were involved in long-term negotiations between the city and its insurance companies, they landed a lease on the historic old Bertie Rouse school, and now that structure will be saved.

Negotiations continue between the city, which owns part of the Mall, and the insurance companies. A preliminary survey of the structure in August by insurance company damage experts estimated that from 30 to 40 percent of the structure would have to be demolished, Fire Chief Keith Brown told the city council in August.

Besides GPAC, the structure also housed a furniture store, the Carver High Museum and the offices and bingo parlor for the Shriners.