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Officials say concerns over purchasing procedures led to decision
By RUSSELL TURNER
The construction of a new Head Start facility in State Line has been put on hold indefinitely due to concerns county officials have over purchasing procedures related to the project.
The Greene County Board of Supervisors met in a special session Tuesday morning and immediately went into a closed-door to discuss the matter. After approximately 45 minutes the board came out of executive session and voted as follows:
– to cease all construction activity on the Friends of Children site in State Line;
– to put all outstanding purchase orders related to the project on hold;
– to hold payment on all unpaid invoices related to the project pending further review;
– to notify all contractors associated with the project in writing about the board’s action; and
– to direct all questions related to the project to the board’s legal counsel, which is currently Richton attorney Paul Walley, who is filling in for attorney Roun McNeal who is out indefinitely on medical leave.
The board of supervisors voted last July to erect an 8,000 square-foot metal building on old school property in State Line, complete with plumbing and electrical installations, for the purpose of partnering with Friends of Children of Mississippi, Inc. (FCM) to open an early childhood education center. That vote by the former board outlined that FCM would be responsible for the finishing work, fixtures and furnishings for the facility.
Work on the building’s foundation began in July even though bids had not been sought on the metal building that would be erected and county leaders had not yet determined how they would fund the project. As of Tuesday, Walley said there is still no formal agreement between the two sides.
At this point, it is unclear exactly how much the county has already put into the project. Roughly $48,000 in claims for the project was paid in August out of Dist. Two road funds to Herring Construction, of Petal, and Lankford Farm Dirt Pit, in State Line. The use of road district funds in that manner were later called into question and supervisors voted to transfer the funds back to Dist. 2 and to continue to move forward with the planned building.
After additional legal questions arose a short time later, the board asked for a Mississippi Attorney General’s opinion regarding three separate options the county was considering for the project. In the opinion received by McNeal on the county’s behalf, Special Assistant Attorney General Avery Mounger Lee advised the board could not fund the project with money from the county’s General Fund as an ‘industrial or commercial project’ covered under Section 57-7-1 of the Mississippi Code. However, Lee wrote that either of the other two options, which lean on the board making a factual finding that FCM provides educational/literacy value to the community, would give board members the grounds to use General Fund monies to pay for the project.
At that time, Hill claimed numerous other projects, including ones such as the tuition assistance program and two building projects at the Jones College campus on Vo-Tech Road, were not scrutinized in the same manner as the Head Start project, and other projects related to his area, had been.
“You make us walk through fire,” Hill said during a meeting in November 2019. “We can build everything else in this county and help every kind of (project), but when it comes to State Line, everything has to be just right. Every time it comes to State Line about education then everything suddenly has to be 100 percent right. I’ve been here 24 years and it ain’t 100 percent right nowhere else.”
Citing the attorney general’s opinion, Hill made a motion to make the finding of fact that the project will provide educational/literacy services and to authorize up to $250,000 to get the building erected and ready to turn over to FCM. Former Dist. Three Supervisor Jerry Mills seconded the motion, which then passed by a 5-0 margin.
Only two of the board members who voted on the Head Start project remain on the board as Hill and former Dist. 5 Supervisor Harold Cook retired and Mills was not re-elected. Dist. 1 Supervisor G.L. Dearman and Dist. 4 Supervisor Wayne Barrow were re-elected and now serve alongside new members Elton Clark (Dist. 2), Wayburn D. ‘Danny’ Smith (Dist. 3) and Gary Fairley (Dist. 5). Tuesday’s action was the first taken by the new board related to the Head Start project.
During meetings in 2019, FCM officials pledged to invest $350,000-$400,000 to finish the building and get it ready to serve students. At that time, FCM anticipated operating costs of around $532,000 in its first year in operation, with 60 percent of that number going toward salaries for teachers, teacher assistants and support personnel, such as custodians and drivers.
The Herald reached out to Dr. Cathy Gaston, FCM’s Deputy Early Head Start Director, for comment, but those calls and emails were not returned by press time Tuesday.
When reached for comment Tuesday afternoon, Hill said the board voted unanimously on three separate occasions last year to move forward with the project and that he hopes the current board of supervisors will look at this as the valuable project he believes it is and “do the right thing” and continue moving forward with the effort.
No details were provided for the review process related to outstanding invoices and purchase orders and no time frame given for lifting the holds put in place on Tuesday.