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School districts monitor leases

HATTIESBURG — South Mississippi school districts have not been lax when it comes to keeping tabs on their 16th Section land.

“We do monitor it very closely,” said Ben Burnett, Lamar County School District superintendent. “It’s something that we’ve improved upon a good bit, as far as our collections, and it’s an important revenue source for us.”

Sixteenth Section land was set aside to provide funding for the state’s school districts. Many think of such property as rural in nature, with districts reaping revenue from timber sales.

While that is certainly the case in many instances, much present-day money is generated by leases on residential and commercial property.

“That’s about all we have, the commercial and residential, and most of those are long-term leases,” said Jas N Smith, public relations director for the Hattiesburg Public School District. “So, we don’t have to monitor those properties as closely as maybe some others.”

Like timberland. That issue came under the spotlight when a Saucier man was arrested April 26 and charged with three counts of timber theft from 16th Section land belonging to the Pearl River County School District and the Poplarville School District.

Harold Edwin Simmons, 54, had been contracted to harvest timber from 16th Section land. He is accused of underreporting about 300 truckloads of timber, pocketing about $375,000.

Poplarville had timber estimated at $368,334 taken from two parcels; Pearl River County lost an estimated $4,393 from one parcel.

Rick Norton, attorney for the Lamar County school board, said that the district works closely with the Mississippi Forestry Commission to manage the 16th Section timber in the county.

Over the past 10 years, Norton said the district had been among the top 10 in the state, averaging a $96-per-acre return on its timberland.

“There’s a 20-year cut we follow, for cutting and replanting,” Norton said. (2 of 2)

Mike Papas, director of auxiliary services for the Forrest County School District, said MFC officials and the Secretary of State’s office have worked with districts to strengthen protection of 16th Section land.

“The last couple of years, when there’s a timber cut, someone from (Forestry Commission) will be down here at least three days a week, and even more when there’s a timber sale,” Papas said. “We are concerned with managing our (16th Section) land, but we haven’t seen anything to draw any red flags.”

Rural property can produce funds in other ways. Counties sell leases for hunting and fishing on the land at a minimum of $5 per acre per year. Easements and rights of way can be sold as long-term agreements to utilities and other commercial entities, while governmental bodies lease property for the likes of landfills, storage barns or recreational use.

Papas said Forrest County received $117,192 from annual surface leases in 2008-09, up from about $75,000 five or six years ago.

The district also receives “lump sum” payments from easements and other leases, including a 10-year, $77,000 contract with the United States Department of Agriculture to reforest land scoured of trees by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Then there’s pine straw.

Lamar County will be taking bids for leases on the collection of longleaf pine straw that will be worth about $20,000 a year.

Lamar County also reaps revenue from leases of commercial and residential property.

One of the county’s 13 parcels contains the likes of Oak Grove High School, Temple Baptist West and Optimist Park. Another encompasses downtown Purvis, which Norton described as a series of 40-year, residential leases.

“We have over 600 leases in Lamar County, and we’ve given a lot of attention to update our records and identify leases when they are set to expire,” Norton said.

That attention to detail helped the district collect about $700,000 from leases in fiscal year 2008-09, said Jennifer Hession, district business manager.

“This year, we’ve collected about $550,000 and expect to collect a good bit more,” Hession said. “We should be around $600,000.”

Debbie Burt, Forrest County superintendent, said the district has had a good relationship with its leaseholders.

“Our people are very, very punctual,” Burt said.

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