By CARL SMITH
All that remains to enact a new era of regional economic development is a mutual funding agreement between the governing Starkville and Oktibbeha County bodies.
The two boards will meet in a special-call session 3 p.m. today at the county courthouse to discuss and vote upon a three-year interim economic development agreement with a Columbus-based group representing Lowndes and Clay Counties.
If approved today, the Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK, led by CEO Joe Max Higgins, will be rebranded into the Golden Triangle LINK and serve as the area’s chief economic development agency while officials work on legislation establishing a more-permanent tri-county partnership.
On Monday, representatives from both the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority and the Greater Starkville Development Partnership’s executive board unanimously approved their portion of the contract.
In a previous meeting, the Starkville Board of Aldermen tabled the contract after lengthy discussion on its length and funding for the permanent organization. Only Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas and Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker voted against postponing the issue.
Normally, a motion needs four affirmative votes for majority approval by the city, but Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins says he will not be at today’s meeting. Three aldermen — Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Dumas and Parker — say they are either committed to or leaning toward voting to sign the interim contract. If any motion stalls at a 3-3 city vote, Mayor Parker Wiseman will break the tie. Wiseman has continuously said the tri-county partnership could be a game-changing entity for the area.
“Due to my professional and legal obligations, I will be unable to attend the special call meeting ... The meeting was scheduled and called by the mayor for a specific date and time certain without any input from me, who is an active and busy practicing attorney,” Perkins said in a release. “I am pro-business and I support economic development. Consistent with my conservative values and perspectives, I will not support any action or legislation that will increase tax burdens on our citizens without their authorizations through a vote.”
Although the contract does stipulate a combined $350,000 in payments per year to the LINK from the city, county, OCEDA and GSDP, neither of the two governing bodies have made motions to raise taxes supporting the interim or long-term economic development agreements.
During the last city board meeting, representatives said the city of Starkville would contribute $50,000 per year — $30,000 from funds diverted from the electric department’s contribution of dues to the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association and $20,000 from the city’s contingency budget — while OCEDA and the GSDP will contribute a combined $200,000 from their own budgets. The county itself is on the hook for the remaining $100,000 yearly contribution.
Sistrunk says she’s now leaning toward voting for the interim agreement after the contract was recently extended to three years.
“That gives the city time to explore options, to look for alternate funding sources and to see if it works as well as everyone hopes before we make the decision to move forward with a legislative entity,” she said. “It’s possible that as we move forward, it makes more and more sense to move forward (with legislation establishing the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority) in 2014. I’d much rather have that option with an extra year for us to make a deliberate, studied move.”
Dumas said his support of regional economic development continues because of the impact it can provide Oktibbeha County.
“I think it has the ability to pay dividends greater than anything we’ve seen before,” he said. “I think this is a good process and a good document. Frankly, I think we can afford the GTRDA (in the future). If anything, I hope this whole process makes us realize how important it is to invest in economic development, and frankly that is something the city and county have not been good at in a long time.”
Parker also said he is in favor of the interim agreement. By forming a cooperative consortium between the three counties, he said, the agency would be a strong contender to attract jobs to the area.
“I think right now it’s best to go ahead and give this a shot,” he said.
When asked how he would vote on the issue, Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn said, “I really don’t have any thoughts on the matter. I haven’t thought about it.”
Calls to Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey were not returned as of press time.
On the county side, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer says he supports the interim agreement, while District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery says he is leaning in favor of it. Montgomery also said he’s willing to hear more discussion for and against the issue from any sitting board member.
“I’m excited about it and looking forward for good things to come out of the agreement. The bottom line is if we want to do something significant for economic development, we have to do something significant,” Trainer said. “This is one of the most significant things we’ve done in a long time in trying to secure an employer that can bring in jobs and improve ourselves as a county. We need to have a game changer in Oktibbeha County, and we have to do what’s best interest in community, not what’s going to get us re-elected.”
Calls to District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, District 4 Supervisor Daniel Jackson and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams were not returned as of press time. Like Wiseman, Howard served on a steering committee charged with representing Oktibbeha County during initial regional economic development discussions.
When those representatives began discussions in July, Howard said the chance for Oktibbeha County to join it would be a great opportunity since the GSDP has been without a chief executive officer since Jon Maynard submitted his resignation in March.