Stories Written by Robbie Ward
TUPELO – More and new voices have joined preliminary city budget discussions for the 2015 fiscal year, among the most important tasks of any public body.
Tupelo City Council representatives joined Mayor Jason Shelton and department heads in early budget talks beginning two weeks ago, the first time in roughly a decade for council members to participate so early in the process.
Council President Mike Bryan’s priority to create a three-member council budget committee ranks among the first and most important since he began the year-long leadership role this month.
“I want the council engaged in the budget process more in the preparation part,” Bryan said recently. “Approving the budget each year is one of the council’s most important responsibilities.”
Key duties for council members in the mayor-council form of government include setting policy and approving the budget. The mayor’s role includes presenting the budget and leading day-to-day operations.
Bryan emphasized council members can complement the administration’s efforts during early meetings related to department-level requests, projected tax revenue, overall expenses and other details.
The committee of Markel Whittington of Ward 1, Willie Jennings of Ward 7 and Lynn Bryan of Ward 2 has joined Shelton; Don Lewis, chief operations officer; Kim Hanna, chief financial officer and city clerk; and other department heads during recent weeks of budget talks.
Council members in early budget talks have an opportunity to share insights and data with the other four on the council. Hanna said Wednesday the budget committee has reviewed each city department’s finances and requests except for Tupelo Water & Light, scheduled for Friday.
By comparison, council members didn’t receive a copy of Shelton’s proposed budget a year ago until Aug. 19, less than a month prior to Sept. 15, the final date state law allows municipal and county governments to approve annual budgets.
Fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Whittington anticipates at least another committee meeting to discuss payroll, the city’s biggest expense. From 2008 to 2013, personnel costs have averaged more than 60 percent of the city’s general fund revenue of more than $30 million.
City leaders want personnel costs eventually to mirror sales tax revenue generated, which hasn’t happened since 2002.
“I haven’t seen anything on payroll yet,” Whittington said. “The budget committee has to evaluate the totals.”
Shelton said he’ll wait until after approving the budget to decide if adding council members earlier to the conversation improved the process.
“It’s something as an administration we could have resisted but that’s not the tone we want to set,” he said. “We all work for the same people.”
TUPELO – Federal officials should inform North Lee County Water Association representatives in Jackson today of any back pay owed employees, concluding a Department of Labor investigation started in May.
The Wage and Labor Division of the Department of Labor scheduled the meeting to discuss findings associated with employees not paid for time worked, information documented in the water association’s 2013 fiscal year audit.
A former North Lee employee provided the financial audit to the Daily Journal, which reported the rural water association’s widespread financial problems, including workers receiving less pay than their work should reflect.
“Time records provided indicated employees who clocked in prior to 8 a.m. were not given credit for that time when totaled for the week,” the audit stated.
North Lee’s board agreed with the finding in the audit, provided to the company in February. North Lee General Manger Jim Banker and at least one board member plan to attend the meeting today with federal officials.
A spokesman with the Department of Labor would not comment since the case has not officially closed.
Government officials required North Lee to pay thousands of dollars to employees after a whistleblower went public in 2011 with widespread corruption at the nonprofit cooperative. The water association didn’t pay employees higher wages required for overtime, which included work on private property belonging to a board member.
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – As debris-removal trucks drove away last week, a former math teacher from south Mississippi arrived – a secret weapon to long-term tornado recovery.
Clay Brown, a teacher turned counselor, has committed a year to coordinating recovery. A survivor of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and recovery leader 36 years later, she felt drawn to Northeast Mississippi.
Brown believes the recovery committee will help people without sources of assistance as they regroup, but the tornado’s shadow will remain much longer.
“A year will make a big difference,” she said. “The scars will last a lot longer.”
Residents of areas hit hardest are discussing the “new normal,” when they try to resume routines with much of their surroundings changed. Those not impacted, however, easily forget about recovery.
Tupelo, Lee and Itawamba counties’ long-term recovery committee intends to provide resources for those still in need and keep reminding the larger community to continue helping.
“It just kind of slips away from you,” said Jack Reed Jr., chairman of the long-term committee. “People tend to forget there are others who continue to struggle to get back.”
The committee is a loose network of individuals and more than a dozen nonprofit, faith-based, government and community organizations. It has eight subcommittees: construction, finance, case management, unmet needs, community assessment, crisis counseling and spiritual care, volunteer coordination and communications.
Paid caseworkers funded through federal resources will help individuals navigate finding the right place to meet specific needs. Brown’s mission involves coordination of caseworkers and reminding people of opportunities waiting.
Brown’s message to the community includes looking beyond the destructive forces to uncover opportunities.
“There’s going to be a lot of improvements that people didn’t see before the tornado,” she said.
Clay Brown, the longterm recovery committee’s case management coordinator, Daily Journal reporter Robbie Ward and Tupelo neighborhood association presidents Keith Kantack, Kathryn Rhea and Sherry Elmore – representing Joyner, Bel Air and Sharon Hills – met Tuesday to discus city-wide and residential recovery efforts after tornado destruction three months ago.
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Property owner and landlord Stacey McFerrin believes the $2.9 million taxpayer-funded residential redevelopment effort could learn a lot from 1214 West Jackson St.
McFerrin sees his most recent house renovation as a potential model for the city’s public-private partnership to improve blighted areas in a highly trafficked location bordering traditional neighborhoods.
His renovated house entered the market Friday, updated with new appliances, redone hardwood floors and new tile. It has an asking price of $84,000, the same ballpark as the city envisions for the homes in its West Jackson Street area public-private partnership redevelopment.
McFerrin sees himself as misunderstood with good intentions.
“Everybody thinks I’m being ugly to them,” he said Monday, walking through his newest renovation. “But this is my business.”
McFerrin, a Joyner neighborhood resident, was referring to his refusal to sell his residential properties to the city for its plan to lure more young families or retirees to buy and live in modest-priced housing in the West Jackson Street neighborhood
The relationship between the property owner and the city’s project underscores the challenges of city redevelopment efforts, which often require plan Bs and Cs, more patience and a creative thinking. The West Jackson Street area was targeted by the city for revitalization after a steady trend of increased crime, deteriorating properties and fewer homeowners in the area, which borders the solidly middle class Joyner neighborhood.
Between city and its nonprofit private partner, the Neighborhood Development Corporation, the project has acquired about 25 properties, about twice as many as McFerrin owns in the same area, which also includes Chapman Drive and Shirley Avenue.
NDC members – a group of bankers, real estate brokers, and business leaders – stopped negotiating with McFerrin to seek properties identified as blighted and better suited for demolition.
Chris Rogers, professional real estate appraiser and head of NDC’s property purchase committee, described the prices McFerrin demanded for his properties as “unreasonable,” “overinflated” and a poor investment of taxpayer money. Instead of including McFerrin’s houses, NDC will pursue adjacent and other nearby land.
“We do not need his properties for our vision,” Rogers wrote in an email to the Daily Journal on Monday.
McFerrin acquired some houses in the areas through banks looking to unload foreclosed properties at a bargain price. However, he doesn’t think he should sell for a low price just because he found a deal.
“This is my retirement,” he said. “If you put money into an investment fund, you don’t want it to break even.”
NDC negotiations with McFerrin have led to frustration among the volunteer group, while McFerrin says he’s under no obligation to sell to anyone. City officials wouldn’t provide a time frame Monday when asked about the project’s next phase – enhanced public infrastructure.
McFerrin, however, has a target date to stay motivated. He considers his properties as his own personal private-sector neighborhood improvement plan, which he expects to help fund his retirement.
“I’ve got a 10-year plan and am in year 6,” he said.
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Credibility issues continued to grow for the 1st Congressional District’s Democratic nominee after the university where the candidate claimed to have graduated wouldn’t confirm his academic credentials.
The latest issue comes just days after Flemron “Ron” Earl Dickey of Horn Lake clarified that his military service never included the elite Green Beret special forces.
Dickey claims to have graduated in 2012 from Grand Canyon University with a bachelor of science degree in emergency management. Nick Knudson, GCU alumni events and promotions manager, confirmed Dickey’s attendance at the university. However, the university’s records showed no one with Dickey’s name with a diploma from the institution.
“We did our research and are unable to confirm his graduation status,” Knudson told the Daily Journal.
Dickey has backtracked on statements since last week describing himself as a “Green Beret veteran.” While he never served in the Army’s special forces, Dickey did wear a green beret as a military cook.
In November, voters will decide whether to support Dickey’s bid to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who faces two other challengers. The Democrat’s campaign focus has shifted in recent days from support for liberal issues to defending more claims.
Dickey describes himself in social media posts as an Operation Desert Storm veteran. Dickey’s own military records conflict with that claim, showing him cooking in Korea during the military conflict.
Angry military service members and supporters from throughout the country and beyond have created an online bullhorn to shout down the political candidate’s personal claims.
Even Rickey Cole, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, seemed to distance himself from the party nominee.
“We repudiate any dishonest or misleading statements made as part of any Democratic candidate’s campaign,” Cole said Monday evening. “We expect Democratic nominees to stick to the facts.”
One fact seems to work in Dickey’s favor. While the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department did arrest him in 2012 on accusations of a felony bad check, the Army veteran never received a felony conviction.
Dickey never responded Monday to Daily Journal questions emailed at his request.
“I’ll respond just as soon as I get them,” he said.
Join the conversation 6 p.m. Tuesday at djournal.com. Neighborhood association presidents for Joyner, Sharon Hills and Bel Air – Keith Kantack, Kathryn Rhea and Sherry Elmore – and reporter Robbie Ward will discuss the tornado’s impact and recovery challenges, along with current and future needs. Ask questions/comment with Google+ or the Twitter hashtag #3tup.
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Blue tarp-covered roofs, vacant lots, missing trees, neighbors helping neighbors and business owners ready to rebuild have replaced the EF3 tornado’s brief but destructive presence three months ago.
The twister’s 135 mph winds left millions of dollars in property destruction in Tupelo and Lee County. It shook away St. Luke United Methodist Church’s exterior and destroyed other churches, terrified North Green Street families hiding in closets and taunted employees in Gloster Street restaurants huddled inside coolers.
The day of the natural disaster, a single death – a driver crashing after hydroplaning – was reported in Lee County the day of the tornado.
Areas in Lee and Itawamba counties were hit hardest in Northeast Mississippi during a day of tornado scattered throughout the state.
Contrasting the tornado’s brief yet efficient destruction, residents, volunteers and business owners will spend years recovering.
People now living somewhere other than the place that was considered home have found patience to wait for less uncertainty, fewer debris lined-streets and subsiding concerns about their neighborhoods’ future.
Statewide, the federal government has approved nearly $19.2 million in individual assistance including $5.5 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. About $14.2 million in low-interest disaster loans has been approved by the Small Business Administration for 229 homeowners, renters and businesses.
The Mississippi Insurance Commissioner’s office reports nearly 9,800 individual and commercial insurance claims related to the tornado resulting in more than $180 million in damage. Seventy-two percent of filed claims already have been settled.
Data specifically for Tupelo and Lee County couldn’t be provided though the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. However, the area has estimates of multiple millions of dollars in residential and commercial property damage.
Cost of debris pickup alone in Tupelo and Lee County is estimated at more than $12 million, nearly all expected to be reimbursed by federal and state taxpayers.
This weekend marked the deadline of local governments to receive reimbursement for debris removal. Tupelo’s most recent reports show nearly 290,000 cubic yards of debris taken from residential areas; Lee County reports collecting 70,000 cubic yards.
MEMA spokesman Greg Flynn said federal estimates originally reached $45 million for payouts to counties and cities related to storm damage but will likely decrease based on expected insurance settlements.
Of that estimate for local governments, he said FEMA has approved about $1 million to cities and counties.
“It’s a long process once it’s turned over from the local government process,” Flynn said.
Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed locally, while businesses along North Gloster Street received significant storm damage or were destroyed.
The city and county remain under self-imposed emergency declarations, allowing leaders to request government to act faster. Tupelo Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan 2 and other local officials have attended meetings with neighborhoods severely impacted.
The councilman is a contractor, but he empathized even more with those displaced from homes. He and his family have relocated from their Joyner neighborhood home while waiting for construction of a new home. Insurance adjusters said the house would cost more to repair than Bryan’s policy would pay, so the company agreed to tear the residence down and help build something new.
“I understand the financial and emotional side my constituents went through,” he said. “I have personally gone through it.”
Even among the destruction, loss and 12,000 homes and businesses without power in the immediate aftermath, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said human response overpowered the storm.
“The tremendous amount of community spirit, volunteerism, civil pride, it’s been incredible,” he said. “As a community, the area had a ‘We’re not beaten and will rebuild stronger than ever mentality.’”
The United Way of Northeast Mississippi helped coordinate roughly 3,000 volunteers from within the city, state and country.
Melinda Tidwell, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said work already completed to assist in damaged areas was possible because of people’s donations.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who were hurting and in pain and we’ve seen a lot of people who have done a lot of good things our community is known for,” she said. “I feel grateful I’ve been a part of it.”
Faith-based disaster relief organization Eight Days of Hope, based in Tupelo, had a volunteering blitz, putting 3,000 volunteers to work during a seven-day period. The group replaced damaged roofs, repaired damaged windows, moved debris from yards and a long list of other tasks.
But not all of it ended on a positive note.
Double-amputee Howard Wallis, 79, and his wife, Eddie, sat in their living room when the storm blew out the houses’ windows, spreading glass shards all around them but not injuring either of them. Howard Wallis smiled and joked with Eight Days of Hope volunteers the entire week they repaired the Wallis home in Bristow Acres.
However, Wallis died on July 19, the day the group left the property.
Jan Leach, 56, the Wallis’ daughter, answered her father’s cellphone last week.
“He enjoyed those volunteers helped out so much,” she said. “My family is so thankful to Eight Days of Hope and everyone else.”
Businesses owners and hundreds of residents continue to wait for contractors to complete construction, allowing them to return to something close to familiar, even if surrounded by fewer trees.
About 75 percent of Jane Livingston’s home in the Bel Air neighborhood received damage. Four trees fell on the roof, exposing the inside to rain. Her father’s house less than a quarter-mile away also received significant damage.
But she still feels fortunate.
“I had good insurance and great friends,” Livingston said. “You just take one day at a time and it gets better.”
Tupelo’s department of development services has worked with neighborhood associations in hardest hit areas to create conservation overlay districts to ensure structures built during recovery meet character and quality of prior to the tornado.
Non-government organizations plan to take a lead role as long-term recovery continues in Lee and Itawamba counties.
More than a dozen local groups including CREATE, the United Way, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other have partnered to form a community recovery team to help property and business owners and others whose finances still fall short after receiving federal assistance.
The committee is split into eight areas, such as finance, construction, volunteer coordination and community assessment.
A full-time caseworker will coordinate each individual and family receiving assistance, streamlining the process and preventing duplication of services. The position is funded through the Mississippi Conference of United Methodists Church’s committee on relief.
More details will unfold this week about the long-term relief effort.
Former mayor and longtime community leader Jack Reed Jr. will chair the group. He said it will focus on unmet needs and remind the community of volunteers and other assistance still needed.
“It just kind of slips away from you,” Reed said. “People tend to forget there are others who continue to struggle to get back on their feet.”
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – First Congressional District candidate Flemron “Ron” Earl Dickey remains tight-lipped about a 2012 felony bad check arrest, two days after making public statements about an ongoing bankruptcy case and misrepresentations of his military record.
The Horn Lake Democrat said Saturday he wouldn’t discuss his Jan. 4, 2012, arrest by the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department or the few-hour jail stint.
“You didn’t ask me any questions when I first announced I was running because my life or campaign wasn’t interesting enough for you,” Dickey said. “You’re not going to treat me like a little boy on a street corner wanting to ask me anything.”
Court records related to the arrest were not accessible Saturday.
The first-time political candidate will appear on the ballot in November among with two others seeking to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a Tupelo Republican currently recovering from brain surgery.
Dickey answered questions from the Daily Journal on Thursday about a pending bankruptcy that dates back to 2010. He also discussed vague statements about his military service.
Specifically, the candidate made clear he served as a cook in the Army two decades ago and wore a green beret; however, he never served in the elite special forces group many civilians identify as Green Berets.
Dickey said he didn’t appreciate a reporter contacting him on the weekend about his criminal record.
“I’ve been more than fair with you and won’t answer any more of your questions,” he said. “This is Saturday and I have a bunch of things to do.”
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – First Congressional District candidate Ron Dickey did wear a green beret during his stint as an Army cook – but never actually served in the elite, special forces group known to civilians as Green Berets.
The Horn Lake resident and liberal Democrat has spent recent days emphasizing his repeated claims as a “Green Beret veteran” remain accurate but need “clarification.” Dickey, a first-time candidate for office, worked as a cook during his three years of Army active duty ending in 1993, one of many support staff for the military branch’s special forces.
Dickey faces incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee and two other candidates in the November general election.
Dickey released a statement Thursday afternoon stating he never served in the special forces but did wear a “Green Beret as part of my uniform.”
The little-known candidate described his status on social media and in person as a “Green Beret veteran” until active duty and retired Green Berets began confronting Dickey online, emailing and calling his house wanting details of special forces service.
Dickey’s claim incensed the roughly 3,000-member Facebook group, Special Forces Posers Patrol, which confronts people who incorrectly identify themselves as members of the elite fighting group.
Dickey recently deleted his Facebook page where he had identified himself as a Green Beret veteran. His new social media page created lists his military service as a “food service specialist.”
“It was a generalized statement that was made in my bio,” Dickey said Thursday. “This is just something I need to clarify.”
Retired Sgt. Maj. George Davenport and Dickey both served in the 3rd Special Forces Company of about 1,500 soldiers at the time. Davenport and many other special forces soldiers make a solid distinction between the elite special forces and support staff such as cooks, mechanics and others who assisted but didn’t hold distinction.
“He was very clever in his way of making his claim in the way the normal public wouldn’t pick up on it,” Davenport said. “I think it’s intentional deception.”
More than issues with Green Beret status follow the former soldier. His background information previously posted online showed service in Operation Desert Storm. However, official military records show he served in Korea during military conflict.
William “Robb” Jewell of Houston, Texas, a former Army cook who served special forces soldiers in Operation Desert Storm, believes the inexperienced politician is “getting what he deserves.”
Dickey also has a pending federal Chapter 13 bankruptcy case that began in 2010. Among the financial issues, Dickey said knee surgery prevented him from working as a truck driver. Federal court filings show his debt as up to $50,000.
“I’ve been described as the poor man’s candidate,” he said.
See Dickey’s military and bankruptcy records below.
By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Willie Jennings had a heck of a time convincing the rest of the City Council to spend $35,600 of taxpayer money for seeds.
The Ward 7 councilman is a painter and landlord by profession, not a farmer.
But for four consecutive fiscal years, Jennings has succeeded in approving a city budget that funds Plant a Seed, an eight-week summer youth program.
Jennings’ intention for the effort led through the city’s human resources department and was focused on encouraging professionalism and a strong work ethic work while teaching teens about city government.
Two other council members, Mayor Jason Shelton and a handful of city employees joined Jennings and city taxpayers Thursday to meet this year’s crop – a group spending the summer working in various city departments.
Participants mingled outside Council chambers, discussing life skills, future plans and new insight about government functions.
Terrika White, 16, a rising junior at THS considering a career in social work, admits feeling anxious her first day at the Tupelo Police Department. Eight weeks later, she said, “they’re more friendly than I thought.”
THS senior Brittany Brock, 16, worked in human resources, learning about the department’s role assisting the city’s roughly 450 employees. She loved how the office handles so many tasks.
“Every day is different,” she said. “You never know what you’ll get into.”
Contanna Purnell, assistant director of human resources, looked at the group and felt optimistic.
“I see them as future role models, entrepreneurs and anything they want to be,” she said. “This is the city’s future.”