Legal aid group eyes move

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Tupelo attorney Brian Neely says his proposal to move North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS) headquarters from Oxford to the Tupelo Furniture Market would answer most of the budget shortfall the agency expects next year.
Neely, a board member of NMRLS, submitted a written proposal Wednesday outlining suggestions for cost-saving moves that would help offset expected budget cuts.
NMRLS provides counsel and representation to poor people in 39 counties in the north half of the state on legal issues as varied as housing, credit, Social Security and domestic violence. The organization delivers its services through an attorney-staff telephone hotline and through offices in Greenville, Clarksdale, Oxford, Tupelo and West Point.
Its 2011 budget is about $2.6 million, but congressional appropriations for 2012 are expected to drop that further.
“We initially budgeted for a five percent cut, although we’re bracing for 27.5 percent, based on what we’re hearing,” said Ben Cole II, the organization’s executive director.
Neely says the current NMRLS Oxford offices, surrounded by light industrial buildings and with little visibility, cost $66,000 a year, and the current Tupelo office costs $14,400 annually. Yearly rent at the Furniture Market, he said, would be $18,000, and a small office in Oxford to house a litigation office and its interns could be had for $9,000 a year, saving the nonprofit some $53,400 per year.
“Total (rental) savings would be $53,400 per year,” Neely said.
Neely asserts the consolidation of the Oxford and Tupelo offices would also enable Legal Services to eliminate four secretarial positions, saving nearly $125,000 per year. Eliminating the administrative law unit coordinator and contracting out technology services would save almost another $73,000 annually, he said, adding that consolidating the Greenville and Clarksdale offices in Greenwood would save another $18,000.
Cole said while the organization’s administrative offices could work as well in Tupelo as in Oxford, such a move might be a hardship on employees.
“Some of our people still live in Holly Springs and other places where (former) offices were located. It would be a lot farther for them to drive to Tupelo.” Given the state of the housing market, Cole said, selling their homes might not be a viable option.
While the organization was placed in Oxford to take advantage of partnerships with the University of Mississippi, Cole said law school interns would continue to work in a pared-down Oxford office.
A committee of board members and staff members studying budget-cutting measures is expected to compare Neely’s proposal to its own earlier recommendations, which included immediately closing the Tupelo office and planning for the closure of the Clarksdale office if budget cuts materialize as expected. The board of directors is scheduled to vote for one plan or another on Oct. 1.
errol.castens@journalinc.com