More people, more costs, Lamar Co. learns

PURVIS — More people may mean more money, but as Lamar County officials have learned over the past decade, more people means more costs, too.

Population figures from the 2010 United States Census merely confirmed what administrators already knew: From 2000 through 2010 — particularly in the years following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the county’s numbers swelled, as Lamar went through one of the largest surges of growth in Mississippi during that period.

And while the larger population better positions the county for increased revenue streams, it also has meant the county has had to increase the breadth and volume of basic services, from public safety to road upkeep, garbage pickup to recreational offerings.

“We’ve been dealing with it the last 10 years, so it’s not going to hurt us any,” Road Manager Jake Sones said of the headcount. “I guess ever since Katrina, we’ve really been dealing with it. I mean, we’ve been keeping up with it all along.”

According to census figures, Lamar attracted 16,588 new faces in those 10 years, a 42.5 percent jump that pushed its population from 39,070 to 55,658.

The only county to see a larger percentage increase: DeSoto County in northwest Mississippi, which grew by 50.4 percent to 161,252 after adding 54,053 people in that same decade.

The census figures bumped Lamar County from the 18th most-populated county in the state in 2000 to the 13th. The five-spot movement was the greatest swing among Mississippi’s top 20 counties.

“We knew the population was growing, and we’d already been (projecting) 50,000 and 51,000 as the basis for submitting on grants,” Fire Coordinator George Stevens said. “All you had to do was look around at the subdivisions where there used to be cornfields.”

The swelling numbers led to an extension of and increase in services, such as:

— Public safety. The budget for sheriff’s administration — from 2004-05 to 2010-11 — added $1,069,504 over the years to bulk up to the current $2,742,159.

The jail administration budget rose by 45.9 percent, going from $1.277 million to $1.882 million.

— Sanitation. In 2004-05, the budget for the department was $1,113,289. For fiscal year 2010-11, the budget had grown by $707,541 to $1,791,535.

“Oh, yeah, there’s been a big difference,” said Danny Young, who has been with the department for almost 13 years, including the last three as director. “We started with five trucks in 1999, and now we’re up to seven, with all the homes that were going in.”

— Library administration. The budget grew by about 41 percent, from $419,992 to $594,989.

Stevens said the addition of a dozen new stations and 10 new fire engines in the past few years were a result of the growth in the county.

“The migration from the coast, that played a big part in allowing us to get the (Community Development Block Grant) for the stations,” Stevens said. “The larger population, it’s increased our tax base and it’s going to make us more competitive when it comes to future grants.

“Like the Assistance to Firefighters Grants, those are based on population, getting the most bang for the buck.”

Administrator Chuck Bennett said another direct increase in revenue based on population will be what the county receives from the state as fire insurance rebates.

“That’s strictly based on the number of people you have,” Bennett said. “Where we had been around $160,000 to $170,000 a year, we’ll be about $300,000 now, so that will jump significantly.”

Bennett said population is a factor considered when it comes to funding for road projects through the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“Some of those things are based on population. Then you have the CDBG and (Mississippi Development Authority) … population plays into some of those decisions.

“A big thing for us was that we had been saying all along that we were going to be in that 50,000 range. Now, we’ve got the backup data. Now, it’s not just conjecture.”

Tim Doherty/Hattiesburg American