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Are county supervisors good Samaritans or are they buying favors?

Supervisors and constituents are split on county governments contributing money like the $250 donation to the Biloxi High School Hardwood Club by the Harrison County Supervisors that yielded them a sign at the Biloxi High School gym.
Supervisors and constituents are split on county governments contributing money like the $250 donation to the Biloxi High School Hardwood Club by the Harrison County Supervisors that yielded them a sign at the Biloxi High School gym. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Kitty Aguilar and Brenda Eiland have watched their county supervisors regularly give money to private organizations such as PTOs and dance companies and even churches and civic associations.

The two women are county hospital retirees who sat through every Jackson County Board of Supervisors meeting they could last year. Last month, Aguilar decided to speak out.

She told the five board members she didn’t like them spending her tax dollars that way. She said it looked as if the elected supervisors were using the option to buy favor with voters.

Jackson County gives out thousands of dollars — $74,800 last year — to advertise in publications or on banners or fliers for organizations in the county. It’s a practice state law allows, called “advertising county resources.”

Harrison County gave out $98,000 in 2016, but one supervisor, Marlin Ladner, voted ‘no’ for almost every one of the expenditures.

Ladner said he will continue to vote “no” as long as his county is borrowing money from its fund balance (essentially its savings) to pay for fire, safety, roads and other county services.

“My position is we need to be showing some discipline about expenditures,” he said. “Five thousand dollars for a Carnival association or $500 for this group or that group, it might be a good cause, but it’s not the primary responsibility of the county.”

Other supervisors disagree

Jackson County Supervisor Troy Ross said he thinks the practice is good for the county.

His board budgets an amount and stops giving once that limit is reached, he said. State law does allows counties to spend up to the value of one tax mill, which in Jackson County is $2 million, but neither Coast county spends nearly that amount.

“We don’t get an abnormal number of requests for the money,” Ross said. “You have the same groups every year.

“Buying favor? That’s always going to be an opinion. You’ll have people say we’re buying favor when we pave a road. People are going to have opinions on everything we do.”

Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco said the spending is usually for organizations, seldomly for one person. The board supports the Gulf Coast Symphony, Cruisin’ The Coast and Christmas on the Water as well as small community functions.

“We’re supporting children, usually, by supporting these groups. Some have 500 students and may need help providing uniforms. We support them as they represent the county,” she said. “They help give the county a positive image.”

When the budget was really tight after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, she said, Harrison County quit doing it for a time.

‘They’re donating our money’

Aguilar and Eiland are part of a group of retirees from the Singing River Health System who began watching county spending after their pensions were put at risk.

“We pay our taxes in good faith,” Aguilar told the Sun Herald. “They’re not using the money in the way it’s intended. They hand-pick these organizations. One supervisor brings it up and asks, and they decide among the five of them who gets the money.”

She said if taxpayers want to donate to charity they can, but giving tax dollars to charity takes the power out of the people’s hands.

“If you belong to an organization, you should be able to promote it yourself and support it, not rely on the county,” she said. “Jackson County donates to the Home of Grace. It is a religious organization. Is the county going to give to all religious organizations?”

Eiland said, “I guess they feel it helps the economy and business. But it also helps them buy votes. How did giving money to help finish building the YMCA help us? That takes away the incentive for the organization to work to raise money.

“They are donating our money.”

Ross said giving to organizations such as the Red Cross, Home of Grace and the YMCA is a rather inexpensive way to support a group that provides services the county might have to pick up if the organization didn’t exist.

Who gets the money?

Jackson County Supervisor Melton Harris sees the practice as being a good Samaritan, offering help to organizations that, in turn, help the community.

“These are volunteers. Sometimes they can raise money, but not all of it,” he said. “We help.”

The Pascagoula Rotary Club received $500 in county advertising. Gautier Pride received $5,000 with the Mullet Festival. Sisters of Shiloh got $500 and East Central Civic Association got $1,000. Most of the high schools received money in some way and so did the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center, Melange Dance Company in Pascagoula and St. Alphonsus Catholic School’s PTO in Ocean Springs.

It’s a mixed bag.

In Harrison County, it was $200 to the Woolmarket Youth Basketball League to place the county name on a sign near a front door of a gymnasium; XX$? a lot of signs on the outfield walls of ballfields; $400 to Unity Festival Inc.; $100 for the 18th annual Kappa Sigma Charity Classic program; and $500 for the Pink Heart Funds ninth annual Pink Gala.

St. Patrick Catholic High School got $250 for county logos on T-shirts to be worn at the National Association of Student Councils, and Second Liners Mardi Gras Club got $4,000 for logos on banners and signs.

Jackson County Supervisor Ken Taylor says he can’t remember anyone being turned down.

He calls the state law that allows this type of spending “an enabler law, encouraging the county to support these organizations. People have petitioned to have a law like that so the county can support them.”

He said he doesn’t agree with all the organizations the county gives to, but supervisors can “get messed up by showing favoritism.”

How they decide who gets money “is just like anything else. You vote on it. Here’s a group. It does a good thing — let’s advertise in their publication.

“You can debate and have discussion (about the request), but majority wins.”

He points out the county is nowhere near its spending limit. “I think we show constraint there,” he said.

“Buying favor from voters? There’s probably some truth in that,” he said. “But whatever that church or organization does in the community is worthy of support.”

Examples county advertising

Jackson County

▪ Jackson County Civic Action $7,500

▪ Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity $500

▪ Lady Greyhounds Softball Boosters $200

▪ St. Mark United Methodist Church $500

▪ East Central Basketball Boosters $500

▪ Mississippi Songwriters Festival $2,500

▪ Moss Point Celebrations $1,000

▪ Parents of Public Schools $1,000

▪ Valor Lodge #271 $500

▪ United Way of Jackson, George counties $1,000

Harrison County

▪ Martin Luther King Coast-Wide Celebration $5,000

▪ Gulf Coast Association of Legal Support Professionals $200

▪ Women’s Resource Center $1,000

▪ D’Iberville High School bass-fishing club $150

▪ Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church $500

▪ Success Women’s Conference $600

▪ West Harrison Lady Canes booster club $500

▪ Hurricane boys booster club $500

▪ Wreaths for Biloxi National Cemetery $500

▪ Humane Society of South Mississippi for electronic logo $1,000

State law

Mississippi law 17-3-1: The board of supervisors of any county in Mississippi, and the mayor and board of aldermen of board of commissioners of any municipality in the state, may in their discretion, set aside, appropriate and expend moneys, not to exceed one mill of their respective valuation and assessment for the purpose of advertising and bringing into favorable notice the opportunities, possibilities and resources of such municipality or county.

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