Lafayette County aims for lower taxes

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – The draft 2012 budget reduces tax rates for Lafayette County property owners from 2011’s 33.79 mills to 26.5 mills.
Supervisors hope to reduce the budget by eliminating most periodic bond payments, using part of the county’s $30 million hospital-sale proceeds to pay off long-term debts. The county and the city of Oxford last month sold the hospital they had jointly owned since the 1960s to Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation.
“What we’re trying to do is to set aside enough money, earmarked, so that when those notes are callable, they can be paid off,” said board president Lloyd Oliphant. “Any and all that can be called and put to bed on our side, we plan to do that as quickly as possible.”
Some residents have said now is the wrong time to pay off bonds, while they’re at historically low rates, but Oliphant said the influx of cash from the hospital can be used for capital improvement needs that arise.
“I don’t think I would go borrow money at five percent to invest it at one percent,” Oliphant said. “We’re going to leave this county in great shape. Leaving us in debt when we don’t have to is not prudent.”
In 2003 the outgoing board members, most of whom had either been defeated or had declined to run again, drastically cut millage rates for the upcoming year.
“Eight years ago, that particular millage rate was lowered arbitrarily. It was not sound fiscal policy,” Oliphant said, adding that the action “hamstrung” the incoming supervisors. “When that (new) board took office they realized there wasn’t enough money for basic services.”
As a result of the fiscal handicapping of its successors by the 2003 outgoing board, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law preventing similar action in the future. Oliphant insists the present board, of which he and at least two more members have already lost re-election bids, is not similarly handicapping its successors.
“This is certainly not anywhere in the same realm that was done previously. By lowering that debt, those monies that are used for debt service are not needed anymore,” he said.
The draft 2012 budget projects $16.25 million in revenue, of which $9.5 million is local tax revenues and another $2.5 million in fees for services. Expenditures, including debt payoff, will be $32.2 million.
Even the two supervisors who are still in the running to keep their seats support the move to make Lafayette possibly Mississippi’s only debt-free county.
District 1’s Mike Pickens said in a recent meeting, “We’ve cut (expenditures) the last four years, and … this will be the third year in a row that we’ve cut the millage.”
District 3 Supervisor Robert Blackmon enthusiastically agreed: “Preach it, brother.”

Click video to hear audio