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Save our kids — Government overstepping its bounds?

February 20th, 2012 Comments off

Government is too involved in our everyday lives. That’s the popular mantra for this political season.

Yet, every time we turn around, there is another bill that finds a way to get involved in our everyday lives.

This week, it’s a bill that would educate youth sports leaders and participants about concussions and would make it illegal for coaches to send players back on the field after suffering one.

It is a great idea. Everyone is against kids having concussions.

It’s still a bill that finds a way to get involved in our everyday lives. So, is it OK for government to have more regulation or isn’t it?

Who is going to oversee whether a high school football coach, who makes less than $50,000 a year, as to whether he makes the correct evaluation?

Is Mississippi going to fund the extra medical staff at every high school sporting event — from football to futbol — to make sure we give accurate assessments?

Again, everyone is for kids not being forced to play sports with concussions, but I am not sure Mississippi’s legislature needs to step in to make that happen.

Having covered sports for a large part of my career, it is my opinion that the vast majority of coaches go out of their way to make sure kids remain healthy. The only thing this bill would do is to act as a deterrent for good, quality people to get into the coaching profession. Considering the hours involved and the money offered, it’s particularly difficult now.

Maybe the Mississippi legislature could offer a bill requiring a certain amount of people to be high school athletics coaches.

Not sure which sun Bryant is talking about

January 25th, 2012 Comments off

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant delivers his first State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 on the steps of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Bryant used the address to unveil detailed policy proposals, from education to health care to energy, saying he wants to create a "Mississippi Works Agenda."

Gov. Phil Bryant said a lot of things Tuesday night in his first State of the State address.

He’s for more jobs. …

He’s against obesity. …

And he’s for education and energy. …

But there was one quote that stood out as Bryant proclaimed that he is also for economic development.

“Economic development is the sun in our universe and everything revolves around it,” Bryant said.

That sounds something like his quote in a Hattiesburg American story by Ruben Mees from Jan. 23, 2007 with the headline, “Bryant launches campaign for lt. governor.”

“‘Education is the sun of the governmental universe; everything revolves around it, whether it’s economic development, transportation or any other issue,’ [Bryant] said, pointing out that Mississippi’s 35 percent dropout rate is unacceptable.”

So, which is it — economic development or education?

I guess it doesn’t matter. It all sounded real good.

Going to West Point for Rotary Club visit

December 7th, 2011 Comments off

As we are trying to put the finishing touches on the MBJ’s printed edition for Dec. 12 (Monday), I am also preparing to travel to West Point tomorrow (Thursday) for a visit with its local Rotary Club.

I am looking forward to going and talking with the group. I have a lot of family and friends in the area. So, I am sure it will be a lot of fun.

I get to chat with civic organizations from time to time. Having been the program director, once upon a time, for the Greenville Rotary Club, I know it is hard to come up with quality programs on a week-in and week-out basis.

What a quality program is to one person may not be to another, but if other civic groups or any organization are looking for a program, I, or someone from the Mississippi Business Journal, will be happy to add it to our calendar.

I am always looking to preach the gospel of the MBJ. So, give me a call at 601-364-1018 or e-mail me at ross.reily@msbusiness.com.

I’ll let y’all know how everything goes in West Point.

Mississippi ranks next to last in nation on new measure of opportunity in America

November 28th, 2011 Comments off

The State of Mississippi has placed next to last in the nation, ranking 50th, on a new measure designed to indicate how effectively individuals living in a state can move up the economic ladders of society as compared to the rest of the country.

>> RELATED STORY: Mississippi is fat and stupid

>> RELATED STORY: Mississippi last in reading and math

>> RELATED STORY: Health, education key to Mississippi economy

The measure, called the Opportunity Index, pulls together more than a dozen data points to rank every state by awarding a first of its kind Opportunity Score. The Index is designed to empower community leaders, engaged citizens, and elected officials at all levels to become knowledgeable of the overall opportunity they are providing to those living in their region. It will be issued annually, giving leaders a way to track progress and measure the effectiveness of their efforts. Developed jointly by Opportunity Nation and the American Human Development Project, the Index is available online, for free in a user-friendly and interactive format at www.opportunityindex.org.

“Opportunity Nation starts from the belief that the zip code you’re born into shouldn’t pre-determine your destiny,” said Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation. “For too long we have sliced and diced the interconnected issues of education, jobs, families, and communities – the framework underlying the idea of opportunity – into narrow silos that are disconnected. The reality is that these factors work in tandem to determine the potential success of our citizenry. That’s what the Opportunity Index provides – an unprecedented snapshot of what opportunity in America looks like at the local, state and national levels.”

MISSISSIPPI LANDS NEAR BOTTOM

Mississippi landed next to last in the nation, earning an Opportunity Score of 29.8 out of 100. Only the state of Nevada fared worse. The state ranked lower than national averages in 13 out of 16 categories. A few of the trouble areas that Mississippians struggle with include:

· Poverty Plays a Role: Mississippi has the lowest median household income in the country, at $36,796, and the highest poverty rate in the nation at 21.4%. It is one of three states in the nation where median household income is lower than $40,000 per year

· Not Part of the Information Superhighway: Mississippi has the lowest score for high-speed internet access, with only 43.5% of households having high-speed internet.

· Room for Improvement in Education: Mississippi has a significantly lower percentage of on-time high school graduates (64%) than the national average (74%). It is also falling behind in college graduates with only 19% of the population holding a bachelor’s degree. The national average is 27%.

“Having scored at or below the national average in many of the metrics used to formulate their Opportunity Score, Mississippi residents have much work to do before they can say they provide their residents with opportunities to improve their lives,” said

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Bryant forges ahead on healthcare city

November 23rd, 2011 Comments off

You have to give Gov.-elect Phil Bryant credit.

Gov.-elect Phil Bryant

He is jumping in with both feet to work on campaign promises.

>> Read more about healthcare in Mississippi

Bryant is set to lead a trip to Houston, Texas, to tour Texas Medical Center on Nov. 29-30.

Bryant, who will become governor in January, will be joined by Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads and some health care providers and business leaders.

Texas Medical Center consists of 49 institutions and is recognized as the largest medical center in the world. TMC has 162 buildings on its main campus, nearly 7,000 patient beds, over 90,000 employees, and 71,500 students.

Bryant has proposed creating a hospital city in Jackson, and the Texas Medical Center is a great place to emulate.

We hope that Bryant is able to find the same type of money from the private sector that Texas has been able to collect over the last 50 years.

A friend of mine in the fund-raising business for hospitals says that finding people to give huge amounts of money for healthcare these days is difficult.

Having said that, we applaud Bryant’s efforts.

Of course, one of the things Bryant could do immediately would be to ramp up the discussion on prevention and education.

We harken back to the recent story, “Life Expectancy Falling in 561 Rural Counties” by Bill Bishop that documents the fact that life expectancy is declining in more rural areas than urban ones. Read it. The first thing, though, that pops out is that 14 of the top (uh, worst) 50 counties in America with the shortest life expectancies are in Mississippi, including the top (worst) seven.

Then, there was the report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that highlighted Mississippi and Alabama as the only two states, which continue to apply their sales tax fully to food purchased for home consumption without providing any offsetting relief for low- and moderate-income families.

Gosh, if Mississippians were able to purchase more healthy foods, maybe they wouldn’t have such short lifespans.

There’s more. Men’s Health magazine ranked Jackson No. 3 in the nation as part of its “Laziest City in America” series.

We definitely need a hospital city as well as lots of sidewalks leading up to it so we can exercise on the way to being treated for obesity and heart disease.

So, with one of the slowest growing economies in the nation because of poor education and health care, Bryant’s feeling that healthcare is a prime issue is refreshing.

Starting with the elimination of corn-based sodas from K-12 campuses could jump-start all of Bryant’s plans. We agree.

We also agree that his trip to Houston is productive and a step in the right direction.

LAST AGAIN — Mississippi ranked No. 50 in latest reading and math scores

November 1st, 2011 4 comments

We have done it again … Mississippi is ranked 50th in the nation in an education-related subject.

Will the next governor be able to improve on this score?

The good news is that Mississippi improved its score in both reading and math from 2009, but not enough to make up ground on West Virginia at No. 49. Mississippi did rank ahead of the District of Columbia in both categories. Massachusetts ranked No. 1 in both categories with scores of 46 and 51, respectively. Mississippi scores were 21 in reading and 19 in math while the national average were 32 and 34.

>> RELATED STORY: Barksdale gets it when it comes to education

>> RELATED VIDEO: Davis addresses Mississippi Council for Economic Education

>> RELATED STORY: Mississippians more optimistic about economy, education

>> RELATED STORY: Economist — Health, education key to economic growth

Below is a state-by-state look at the percentage of eighth-graders who scored at or above reading and math proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Proficiency levels in both subjects are shown for both 2009 and 2011, with reading scores in the first two columns and math scores in the next two.

2009 2011 2009 2011
Jurisdictions at or above proficient in reading at or above proficient in reading at or above proficient in math at or above proficient in math
National public 30 32 33 34
Alabama 24 26 20 20
Alaska 27 31 33 35
Arizona 27 28 29 31
Arkansas 27 28 27 29
California 22 24 23 25
Colorado 32 40 40 43
Connecticut 43 45 40 38
Delaware 31 33 32 32
Dist. of Columbia 14 16 11                                17
Florida 32 30 29 28
Georgia 27 28 27 28
Hawaii 22 26 25 30
Idaho 33 34 38 37
Illinois 33 34 33 33
Indiana 32 32 36 34
Iowa 32 33 34 34
Kansas 33 35 39 41
Kentucky 33 36 27 31
Louisiana 20 22 20 22
Maine 35 39 35 39
Maryland 36 40 40 40
Massachusetts 43 46 52 51
Michigan 31 32 31 31
Minnesota 38 39 47 48

>>MISSISSIPPI 19 21 15 19
Missouri 34 35 35 32
Montana 38 42 44 46
Nebraska 35 35 35 33
Nevada 22 26 25 29
New Hampshire 39 40 43 44
New Jersey 42 45 44 47
New Mexico 22 22 20 24
New York 33 35 34 30
North Carolina 29 31 36 37
North Dakota 34 34 43 43
Ohio 37 37 36 39
Oklahoma 26 27 24 27
Oregon 33 33 37 33
Pennsylvania 40 38 40 39
Rhode Island 28 33 28 34
South Carolina 24 27 30 32
South Dakota 37 35 42 42
Tennessee 28 27 25 24
Texas 27 27 36 40
Utah 33 35 35 35
Vermont 41 44 43 46
Virginia 32 36 36 40
Washington 36 37 39 40
West Virginia 22 24 19 21
Wisconsin 34 35 39 41
Wyoming 34 38 35 37
DoDEA 39 39 36 37

I talked with politician with a mind of his own

September 30th, 2011 Comments off

Toeing the party line has gotten to be the way we do business these days.
But it was refreshing to hear there are some, at least one, that is bucking the trend to follow along like a herd of cattle.
I was talking to someone this week who is running for office. He was giving me the general breakdown that he feels good about where he is in the campaign and that he thinks he can win when Nov. 8 rolls around.
The thing that was refreshing, though, is that when his party tried to manhandle him into running his campaign in the same cookie-cutter format it was having the rest of its candidates run, he said no.
Apparently, the dinosaurs in charge were not particularly happy with his decision.
“When all is said and done,” he said. “I have to make decisions based on the overall good of my district. If I start cowtowing now to the will of the established system, we will never move forward, as a district and then as a state and a society.”
He is absolutely right.
One-size fits all really doesn’t.
What works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi and what works in Gulfport doesn’t necessarily work in Greenville or Hattiesburg or Columbus.
We need more people in office who will think for themselves and make decisions based on the good of the people and the state and not, specifically, (Dean Kirby) on the impact said decisions might make on their colleagues during the next election cycle.

Contact Mississippi Business Journal editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018

Bynum will be remembered for great, thought-provoking work

September 4th, 2011 1 comment

News that former Mississippi Business Journal editor and co-owner Buddy Bynum passed away this weekend is dispiriting for our newsroom. Bynum has long been held as the best and most thoughtful editor the paper has had in in its 30-plus year history.

James L. "Buddy" Bynum was editor of the Mississippi Business Journal from 1993-1997.

As the new editor of the MBJ three years ago, I began to go through old copies of the publication to see what had been done in the past. It didn’t take long to figure out that trying to match the writing and thought-provoking work of Bynum was going to be a work in vain.

He was the straw that stirred the drink, and if there was anyone that helped put the MBJ on the map, it was, without doubt, Buddy Bynum.

Bynum was with the MBJ from 1993-1997 and then served as the editor of his hometown paper — The Meridian Star — from 2000-2005. He also served as an aide to Gov. Haley Barbour and former Sen. Trent Lott.

There will be many great moments in the years to come at the Mississippi Business Journal, but the memory of Bynum will serve as a great reminder of what every journalist that walks through these doors must live up to in the future.

We will all miss Buddy immensely.

Democrats out to take America in a coup …

August 4th, 2011 4 comments

I just saw someone of prominence in the Mississippi business community make the following comment …

“Socialism in action: Euro stocks absolutely tanked today on fear of debt problems spreading. Dow down over 500 points. This is Barry/Pelosi/Reid’s model for America. …”

Great call Mr. Business Leader … Yeah, these guys are rooting for everyone to go broke, including themselves … That will help them and everybody else … That’s intelligent!

Really?

Will DDT be willing to apologize to Berger on its front page?

August 3rd, 2011 Comments off

When I was the editor of the Delta Democrat Times several years ago, there was a reporter, Joshua Howat Berger, who wrote a fantastic story about the misdeeds of A.J. Jefferson at the South Delta Regional Housing Authority. … In a power play, Jefferson, unhappy with the story, intimidated the publisher and owner of the paper into running a front-page apology, which embarrassed Berger, but, apparently not the leaders of the DDT. Housing Executive Arrested

A.J. Jefferson — Photo by Bill Johnson/Delta Democrat TImes

However, in the last year — partly because of that story — federal investigators have been hot on the trail of Jefferson. It culminated this week with Jefferson being arrested and accused of knowingly and willfully embezzling federal funds, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, making false statements to federal authorities in the
course of an investigation, and witness intimidation
, among other things… Read part of the story here.

And read the press release from the U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney, Northern District of Mississippi here … Housing Executive Arrested

My question is whether the leadership is willing to apologize to Berger, who is now working as a foreign correspondent in South Africa. If the DDT apologizes, it should be on the front page. Berger did great work during his time at the DDT, including the Jefferson story, which might have been the best, and most accurate, story he wrote in his two years in Mississippi.

Berger was also the first reporter to unveil the truth about a man from the Delta, who was wrongly convicted of rape … The man, after DNA analysis revealed he couldn’t have been the man involved in the crime, was released from prison.

Berger deserves an apology …

See the complete text from the U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney, Northern District of Mississippi below …

U.S. Department of Justice
United States Attorney
Northern District of Mississippi
900 Jefferson Avenue 662/234-3351
Oxford, Mississippi 38655-3603 FAX 662/234-0657
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: KRISI ALLEN
August 1, 2011 PHONE: (662) 234-3351
www.justice.gov/usao/msn EMAIL: kris.allen@usdoj.gov
SOUTH DELTA REGIONAL HOUSING AUTHORITY EXECUTIVE
ARRESTED ON EMBEZZLEMENT, OBSTRUCTION CHARGES
OXFORD, Miss. – Felicia C. Adams, United States Attorney for the Northern District of
Mississippi, together with Daniel McMullen, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) in Mississippi, and Bobby Anderson, Special Agent in Charge of the United
States Department of Housing and Urban Development – Office of Inspector General in New
Orleans, announces that FBI agents have arrested Ann Jefferson, Executive Director of the South
Delta Regional Housing Authority (SDRHA), today in Leland, Mississippi, pursuant to an
indictment returned last week by a federal grand jury.
Jefferson, 57, of Leland, is accused of knowingly and willfully embezzling federal funds,
witness tampering, obstruction of justice, making false statements to federal authorities in the
course of an investigation, and witness intimidation. She appeared before United States
Magistrate Judge Jane Virden in Greenville, Mississippi, today (Monday) and was released on a bond
posted in February on a previous arrest.
“This joint HUD-OIG/FBI investigation into the alleged misuse of government funds by
these subjects is an excellent example of the effectiveness of collaboration between federal
agencies,” stated FBI SAC Daniel McMullen. “I commend the hard work and dedication of all
the HUD-OIG and FBI investigators during the course of this investigation.”
If convicted on all counts, Jefferson faces up to 95 years in prison and up to $2 million in
fines. She could also be ordered to pay restitution to the victims of her crimes.
Also arrested today and charged in the indictment is Jimmy Johnson, a contractor doing
business with SDRHA. Johnson was charged with embezzlement of federal funds, witness
tampering and making a false statement to federal authorities in the course of an investigation.
He faces up to 35 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines, if convicted.
The charges against Jefferson and Johnson are merely accusations, and the defendants are
presumed innocent until proven guilty.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States
Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of the Inspector General, and is being
prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Robert H. Norman and Susan S. Bradley.

Also … here is a comment posted on the ddtonline.com site immediately after the apology ran in 2008 …

DDT Soundoff of the Day: I was very disappointed to read the “apology” in (the Sept. 7) newspaper. As a former student of journalism, I learned that the role of the press is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Mr. Berger’s original story, “Housing authority director’s tactics questioned by community, homeowners” (Sun., Aug 24), fulfilled both of those goals. As evidenced by the large volume of comments about the article on the DDT Web site, Mr. Berger’s piece provided solace to employees and homeowners who felt too powerless and intimidated to stand up to Ms. Jefferson. And the article also questioned Ms. Jefferson’s abuse of power and use of federal tax dollars, forcing the community to examine whether the director has become too comfortable in her role. But when your paper chose to “apologize for any inconvenience the story may of caused Ms. Jefferson,” you failed in your duty to the citizens of the Delta and the people of this country. The role of the press is to cause “inconvenience” to people who have served too long with too little oversight. A newspaper that takes seriously its job as a watchdog should never apologize for causing discomfort; it should be proud to evoke controversy and questioning. Shame on you, Delta Democrat Times, for backing down after finally standing up.

Update … the original story from Aug. 24, 2008 is printed below …

Housing authority director’s tactics questioned by community, homeowners

By JOSHUA HOWAT BERGER joshberger@ddtonline.com | 8 comments

LELAND – It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday and a hundred-plus homeowners are gathered at the Leland headquarters of South Delta Regional Housing Authority.

South Delta’s executive director, Ann “A.J.” Jefferson, is pacing the floor with authority. She is dressed in short jeans and a black jersey with a purple number 19 on the front. Jefferson is a big woman, with a big afro and big, tinted glasses, and she has a way of filling the room when she speaks.

“You all gotta help us maintain your community,” Jefferson is telling the assembled homeowners. “That’s why you’re here today. You know, it’s not about no one person. It’s not about South Delta. It’s not about you. It’s about all of the Delta community.”

A sense of community, however, does not seem to be what’s brought most of these homeowners here this rainy Saturday morning.

The homeowners have been summoned by letter for a meeting about maintaining their property. They are participants in a South Delta program that helps low-income families in the six counties South Delta serves – Bolivar, Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Sunflower and Washington – buy their own houses.

It’s a long drive to Leland for many of them, and from the anxiety with which they gather at the sign-in sheet, it’s clear why they’ve made the trip: The penultimate sentence of the letter they received reads, “Anyone not attending will be fined.”

That threat, it turns out, will be the first of several.

During the meeting, South Delta staff member Angela Brady tells the homeowners she’ll be inspecting their property inside and out. If she finds any unresolved problems, she says, South Delta will fix them – and then send the homeowner the bill.

Jefferson takes it one step further, threatening to kick out homeowners who don’t meet South Delta’s maintenance standards.

But what gets to the woman near the front of the room is Jefferson’s call for the homeowners to maintain not only their own property, but their entire neighborhood.

As Jefferson delivers her talk on community to the neatly arranged rows of residents, the woman near the front ventures a thought.

“Ma’am,” she says, “I don’t think that’s fair, really. Because I keep my property up. She keeps her property up. But the people down the street don’t keep their property up. … That’s not my responsibility.”

“You have to make a decision on how and what way you want your community,” Jefferson tells her. “If paper and stuff is being put in my community, I go down the street and I clean up.”

“You do?” the woman asks.

“Yes, I do,” Jefferson says.

“Then come on down and clean up my property,” the woman says.

The moment is indicative of the resistance Jefferson has encountered as she works to revitalize South Delta. Jefferson took the executive director job in September 2006, and has turned heads in recent months as she’s charted an ambitious new course for the agency.

South Delta Regional Housing Authority is a government entity created in 1976. It was established under the state’s public housing statute, and receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The agency has always had a bold mission: to provide decent, affordable housing to anyone in the region who needs it. Jefferson, a 25-year veteran of the public housing world, has a bolder mission still: to do away with public housing projects that concentrate and isolate poverty, and instead give poor people a chance to live anywhere they choose.

Few would dispute the desperate need for quality affordable housing in the Delta. And few would dispute the importance of eradicating the crime-ridden ghettoes to which the region’s poor are often confined.

Yet Jefferson has been a source of controversy in recent months as South Delta has begun moving into wealthier neighborhoods and demanding more things of its residents.

As South Delta has upset some new neighbors and leveled threats at some long-time clients, many in the region have begun questioning the scope of the agency’s mandate.

The scrutiny has led to allegations that Jefferson has abused her position both to intimidate those who challenge her and to profit inappropriately from her job.

It has also raised concerns about the propriety and the legality of some of South Delta’s recent work.

xxxxxxx

The tension between South Delta and the Leland Historic Preservation Commission had been building for several weeks before the commission’s July 21 meeting – though many of those involved would only realize this in retrospect.

Both sides seem to agree that there were two sources of friction.

The first dispute was over South Delta’s obligation – or, A.J. Jefferson maintained at the time, the absence thereof – to follow the city’s ordinance on preserving the historic district.

The second dispute arose from a letter written to a member of South Delta’s board by historic district resident Kenneth West, the dismayed neighbor of a property recently purchased by South Delta.

The March 2000 ordinance that created the preservation commission requires property owners in the historic district – which comprises downtown Leland and the area along Deer Creek – to get a “certificate of appropriateness” from the commission before changing exterior features such as building facades or landscaping.

Hebe Splane, the chair of the commission, says she told Jefferson about the ordinance after South Delta violated it – apparently unintentionally – by cutting some trees at one of its new properties, 205 N. Deer Creek Drive W.

Nevertheless, according to Splane, South Delta then proceeded to cut more trees at another of its properties, 201 N. Deer Creek Drive W., without seeking the commission’s approval. Technically, this offense is punishable by a misdemeanor conviction, a $1,000 fine and a three-year moratorium on further work at the property.

(Jefferson didn’t respond to questions from the Delta Democrat Times about the accuracy of Splane’s account.)

Around the same time, Jefferson became aware of a letter from West to Howard Sanders, the Washington County appointee to the board that oversees South Delta.

West’s letter expressed his belief that South Delta’s purchases in the historic district violated the preservation ordinance and would have a detrimental effect on property values.

Jefferson penned an outraged response, which she had South Delta employees hand-deliver to the members of the preservation commission. Jefferson says she believed at the time that West was a member of the commission. (For the record, he is not.)

“You would think that in 2008, people have learned the lessons of Mississippi’s horrid past,” Jefferson wrote in her reply.

“The letter is direct and not subtle in its attack on the very core of the goals and mandate of SDRHA to provide affordable and first class housing for the clients that it serves,” Jefferson continued. “It is not a mandate that perpetuates the age old stereotypes those less fortunate should be constricted to marginal housing.”

These disputes, with their weeks of buildup, finally unwound in a flurry of words at the July 21 commission meeting.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Jefferson interrupted the proceedings and accused the commissioners of racism and bigotry. As Splane tried to correct the misimpression that West was a member of the commission, and to explain that nothing in the preservation ordinance prevented South Delta from buying property in the historic district, Jefferson said she refused to let the commissioners demean her.

“Do not interfere with our contractors,” she concluded. “That is a violation of federal law.”

As the minutes describe it, Jefferson then stormed out of the meeting with an entourage of South Delta employees behind her.

“I was just so astonished,” says Commissioner Daryl Lewis. “She just barreled right through. She didn’t let anyone get a word in edgewise.

“We were fully prepared to work with her,” he added.

“I almost don’t know what to say,” says Splane. “We didn’t have any idea that there was a problem.”

After a separate meeting between Jefferson, Splane and Mayor Barbara Brooks, a self-described ally of South Delta, Jefferson agreed to follow the rules of the historic district.

But at another public meeting last week – this time at South Delta headquarters – Jefferson again lost her temper after Splane told her the historic commission had investigated the effect of low-income housing on property values.

As Splane tried to share the results of that investigation with Jefferson – the commission had found a study concluding that low-income housing does not have a significant effect on property values – Jefferson railed against what she called the inherent racism of the question.

“Just because a person makes less than somebody else doesn’t mean they’re worth less,” Jefferson said.

Then she left the meeting, again.

“OK, I’m done,” she said. “Meeting’s over with. I’m getting upset.”

“This is racism, pure and simple,” she said later in an interview. “You can’t judge a person based on whether they’re poor or rich.”

xxxxxxxx

When the homeowners’ meeting is over, the attendees trickle outside into the rain.

Many of them don’t sound happy about what they’ve just heard.

“That was stupid,” one woman says. “They forgot about those grants they mentioned last time. … Everybody was supposed to get a grant to fix their houses up.”

Another woman looks at the maintenance clause in her deed and says she knows she’s responsible for keeping her house up.

But demanding her presence at a Saturday morning meeting and threatening her with a fine is another matter, she says.

“They don’t have that authority,” she says. “I don’t appreciate them talking to me no kind of way.”

The participants in South Delta’s homebuyer assistance program are, for the most part, like any other homeowners. They hold the deeds to their houses. They are the registered owners at the tax assessor’s office. They pay their property taxes. They have homeowners’ insurance. And they signed off on a maintenance clause essentially identical to that in any residential mortgage.

The difference is that they have bought their homes from a government-run housing authority. Instead of making loan payments to a bank each month, they write their mortgage checks to South Delta.

The interest rate on new contracts is currently about 5 percent, with a down payment of about $2,500.

According to Jefferson, this deal means South Delta homeowners have a special set of obligations – especially since South Delta is trying to expand the program to neighborhoods such as Deer Creek.

“We hold the mortgage to this property, and you gotta keep it up. Simple as that,” she says. “If we don’t do this – make sure they take care of their property – then people like Hebe (Splane) is gonna win.”

This is the core of Jefferson’s mission. To realize her vision of fully integrated neighborhoods – where poor blacks are no longer ghettoized in decrepit public housing projects, and rich whites no longer the exclusive proprietors of beautiful homes on Deer Creek – Jefferson believes she must overcome perceived adversaries such as the Leland Historic Preservation Commission with the sheer power of community she sees in the South Delta homeowners.

It’s not a vision shared by everyone. South Delta is currently being sued by at least one participant in the homebuyer assistance program over a dispute related to South Delta’s interpretation of the maintenance clause. And a growing number of community members who aren’t South Delta clients have begun questioning how much South Delta’s recent property purchases will really improve the community.

Because South Delta does not pay property taxes, some residents worry its current buying spree will diminish municipal budgets. At its discretion, South Delta can make “payments in lieu of taxes” to city coffers.

But South Delta board members say those payments don’t usually equal the reduction in tax revenue.

Records at the Washington County chancery clerk’s office currently show 23 properties registered to South Delta that have been purchased since October 2007 – in effect, taken off the tax rolls.

That’s in addition to the 20 properties that the agency already owned in the county.

The figures may turn out to be even higher. Jefferson says South Delta has started using “fronts” to buy property so that sellers will agree to a fair price.

“People jack up the price if they know you’ve got federal money,” she says.

Jefferson refuses to disclose how many properties South Delta plans to buy in the coming year, again citing the problem of sellers raising the price.

The Delta Democrat Times requested information about South Delta’s budget and operations, and its five most recent fiscal year audits – which South Delta has told HUD are available for public review.

Jefferson referred the request to South Delta’s attorney, Paul Mathis. Mathis did not respond.

According to the Web site fedspending.org, South Delta received $6.4 million for Section 8 housing programs in fiscal year 2007. Jefferson says South Delta uses rents from Section 8 tenants to buy new properties and rehabilitate them.

Beyond that, she has declined to discuss South Delta’s operations.

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When Jefferson moved to Leland from St. Louis, she bought a house on Deer Creek Drive, taking out a loan from Bank of America for $118,750, the chancery clerk’s records show.

Jefferson then got approval from South Delta’s board to move into a South Delta-owned house. She sold her home at 203 N. Deer Creek Drive W. to South Delta and moved to another South Delta property on Feltus Boulevard.

Of all the concerns that have been raised over Jefferson’s leadership of South Delta, perhaps the most serious of all arise from allegations that she has made inappropriate personal use of the agency’s resources.

Some have questioned whether Jefferson should have sold her house to South Delta.

They have also questioned whether she should be living in a house owned by the agency, and on which it pays no property tax.

Jefferson did not respond to inquiries about her salary. But in 2004 – the last year for which records were available through channels other than South Delta (the agency used to have a non-profit arm whose tax returns are public) – South Delta’s executive director earned $108,502.

That is well above the income bracket public housing programs typically target.

South Delta board members say they feel the arrangement is appropriate. But Bolivar County appointee Robert Gray acknowledges the agency has a lack of available housing.

“I can’t say that there’s enough to go around,” he says.

Board members did not approve of another perk that Jefferson has allegedly allowed herself: use of South Delta employees to do maintenance work at her home.

Earl Lewis lives near Jefferson’s old house on Deer Creek Drive. He says three or four truckloads of maintenance workers used to arrive in South Delta trucks to do yard work and other chores at Jefferson’s house.

“They did yard work, poured concrete, put in air conditioners, painted it inside. They even done the flower beds,” he says. “That was going on all the time.”

Other neighbors at both her new and old houses tell similar stories.

“I’d see them when I’d leave in the morning, and when I’d come back in the evening they’d still be there,” one man said. “And when I came home for my lunch hour, they were there then, too.

“And it wasn’t just a few days,” he added. “It was for extended periods of time.”

Jefferson did not respond to questions about her personal real estate transactions with South Delta.

Nor did she respond to the allegations that she improperly used South Delta workers to maintain her house.

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Despite the controversy that has surrounded her tenure at South Delta, Jefferson says she feels the large majority of the region’s residents support her mission.

As for the rest, she says she’s a fighter, with a mission that’s worth fighting for.

“We’re gonna have some people that disagree with us,” she says. “But we’re not gonna stop because of how they feel.

“We know we’re gonna run into obstacles with some of them. But we’re not gonna let that stop us.”

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