Pascagoula – Jackson County`s former Chancery Clerk Lynn Presley is in state prison in Rankin County after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzlement.
The county is facing a $1.5 million deficit starting the next fiscal year, and has learned that although Presley`s creative bookkeeping showed the county running in the black, it has actually run at a deficit since 1994.
Now, the dark cloud hanging over Jackson County has descended on the department of economic development. Despite voting to increase taxes by 3.58 mills, the county has made major cuts in some departments, and has decided against funding the county`s economic development program.
Some say the decision is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Pascagoula was recently named the top mid-sized market in the Southeast for creation of jobs. The county has seen $850 million worth of investments and the creation of 6,000 new permanent jobs in the past 18 months.
“Business communities of our size in Mississippi must have viable economic development organizations with full professional staffs,” said Connie Moran, executive director of Jackson County Economic Development. “Those groups market their areas very competitively, and provide a favorable impression of their community as a business location. Certainly we are at a disadvantage if we cannot promptly and adequately respond to inquires from both new companies as well as our existing companies.”
The Jackson County Board of Supervisors said they didn`t fund economic development because they believe the department should be funded by the Jackson County Port Authority. The supervisors also gave the port only one of the two mills requested for port dredging operations.
The port authority has decided to take over operating the department of economic development although it will mean reducing the staff from five to two, and cutting back on programs and services.
“We`re going to continue as best we can in full support of economic development,” said Charles Persons, president of the Jackson County Port Commission.”There is no justification for the county deciding not to fund economic development.
“Our port board believes it is very necessary for a county this size to have an economic development department, and we took steps to make sure that department continues-not as it was, because we had to cut the budget-but as a vital part of this county. It is not going to be easy, but we`ll be able to shift some monies to cover the expenses of this department. You cannot take a department that made Jackson County the number one leading county in the U.S. in terms of industrial growth and say, hey, we don`t need you any more. Things like that don`t happen.”
Funding for economic development will come out of revenues generated by the port. Moran and one other employee will be retained, and three staff members will be laid off.
“We don`t want to cut,” Persons said. “We have a fantastic staff. But have to do what we think is necessary.”
The port commission recently named Melody Bradley port authority executive director, putting the department of economic development underneath her. Previously Bradley was port director.
Moran said she was very disappointed the board of supervisors decided against funding economic development or the port`s full request for maintenance dredging.
“However, I commend the vision of the port authority to recognize the importance of maintaining a vital economic development operation,” she said.
Moran said it makes no sense to cut economic development when that department generates a large amount of revenue for Jackson County in terms of new payrolls and taxes.
Jackson County Economic Development was placed under the umbrella of the port authority in 1996. And while the board of supervisors has decided that the port should be responsible for funding economic development, Moran said only about 20 percent of her business prospects actually use the port.
“So to say it should be funded just from port revenues doesn`t make sense,” Moran said.
“The responsibilities and issues faced by economic development professionals far exceed what is related to water-borne traffic. We have so much more activity that is not port related.”