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Olive branch approach replaces boxing gloves

July 5th, 2011 No comments

Skeleton crews from the city councils of Biloxi and Gulfport have met in the first of what they hope is a series of meetings designed to resolve a longstanding dispute over which city has the right to annex property in the vicinity of Highway 605.
The property ostensibly will be the site of a residential development, and was set to be taken in by Gulfport until a Harrison County chancellor on June 22 threw out the city’s annexation case, citing the city’s decision to change location and construction details of the subdivision’s water and sewer infrastructure in the middle of the trial, after the discovery phase had ended. With or without the subdivision, each city agrees the property is primed for some type of development, and would mean substantial revenue, though neither side had figures.
With the court proceedings halted, each side agreed to at least a temporary truce to the legal wrangling. Starting with last week’s meeting, three members from each council will meet the second Tuesday of every month in an effort to arrive at an agreement without expensive litigation.
“We tend to get stuff second-hand,” said Biloxi City Council president Clark Griffith, explaining the reason behind the meetings. “There is not a forum, and that is what we set up (Tuesday), a forum where can talk directly with another. We are not making any decisions, but it provides a forum for useful discussion.”
Said Gulfport City Council president Ricky Dombrowski: “We decided we should at least sit down and talk about it to see if we could come up with a resolution.”
The initial reviews were heavy on optimism, but both sides agreed there remains work to do.
The biggest roadblock is how much land on either side of the Biloxi River either city will be willing to let the other take. The river, which runs northwest from the coastline to U.S. 49 in northern Harrison County, has historically served as a natural boundary separating the two cities. Prior administrations from each city, Dombrowski said, have had handshake agreements that kept one city from crossing the river into the other.
Using the talks to reach an agreement on growth paths that can be taken back to the full councils and voted upon will eliminate the legal confusion that dogged the latest round of annexation litigation.
“We’re going to put the lines in our land plan, put it in writing eventually and filed in our (council) minutes,” Dombrowski said. “Then you’ve got a little more teeth in it. That’s the direction we’re going.”
An ideal solution for Gulfport, he added, would have to include crossing the river somewhere, most likely in the vicinity of Highway 605.
“We don’t want to be cut off on our growth path. And if you look at the Biloxi River, we’ll never agree to (not crossing it at some point). Giving that up would totally cut us off from any kind of growth.”
Griffith said Gulfport coming across the river at some point would be agreeable, but it would have to be farther north than the 605 area. He pointed to Gulfport’s past annexation of the Orange Grove area, when the city stopped on the banks of the Biloxi River, the same way Biloxi stopped at the river when it annexed Woolmarket. “That’s been the natural boundary of the two cities. At this point, to take away some of the things that have already been adjudicated in prior annexations and to go across the Biloxi River and take part of Biloxi is non-negotiable because that’s already been negotiated.”
Griffith pointed to the criteria the Mississippi Supreme Court has established as criteria for annexation: city land adjoining the proposed site, established infrastructure and overlapping property. Biloxi, Griffith said, meets all of those requirements in the 605 vicinity. Gulfport, he added, does not.
Asked if he agreed with that, Dombrowski demurred. “I don’t really want to get in the legal arguments. I think we probably could say that we meet them, too. But that’s the sticking area. We have to decide whether we want to give up 605 or if that’s going to be a battle we’ll continue to fight.
“What I wanted out of the meeting we got. We didn’t slam the door on each other and scream and holler, and we agreed to another meeting. We are pretty far apart from each other, but we left with positive vibes on both sides.”
“You can never have a compromise if you never even propose one,” Griffith said. “Neighbors working together always make better neighbors.”

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University leaders: Federal DATA Act redundant, expensive

July 5th, 2011 1 comment

A bill making its way through Congress would digitize and consolidate the system used to track federal spending, but the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities says it duplicates existing systems and adds another layer of expense to critical university research projects.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — or DATA Act — would apply tracking requirements similar to those attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to federal grants, loans, contracts and the internal expenses of every federal agency.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform cleared the bill June 22 after a mark-up session. It now awaits action on the full House floor.
Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., who chairs the Oversight Committee said the DATA Act would bring financial transparency for every government agency into the digital age, leaving behind the cumbersome process of procuring paper records in favor of a centralized database.
The problem with that, though, is that Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning is already in the process of establishing a database that serves an identical purpose, said Don Zant, vice president for budget and planning at Mississippi State University. The IHL, per the terms of a law passed in the last legislative session, must have the database up and running by July 1, 2012. Like its potential federal sister, the state database would track spending by every state agency, and offer searchable, customizable results. Individual transactions would be available, to go with full audits and reports. The transactions have to be on the website within 14 days of the applicable action. The database would include records starting with fiscal year 2010.
IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton said getting the database operational will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars “but most likely won’t exceed $500,000.” That figure does not include regular maintenance once the site is up and running.
Zant told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview last Monday that even without the state mandate to formulate a database that would track the spending and results of every research project at Mississippi universities, there already exist several levels of federal oversight. Any university that receives federal funding for any purpose is subject to annual audits.
“Not only that, but pick a federal agency – transportation, education, public safety, you name it. They will do audits or monitoring visits for these projects,” Zant said. “It happens all the time. Plus the IHL already consolidates all the audits for the public universities, and they’re available for anybody to see. There’s already a lot of scrutiny and accountability.
“If we have to turn around and develop another database just like the one we’re already building, you’re talking about another major expense.”
The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities and the Council on Government Relations cited preliminary data being gathered by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, a cooperative initiative among federal agencies, that ARRA’s reporting requirements for university research-related money cost $87 million for 100 research institutions that were awarded the grants. According to the same figures, that comes to $7,900 per research award.
“The cost of control should never outweigh the benefit you’re going to receive,” Zant said. “If we already do this on a state level, what benefit would we get from doing the same thing because of a federal law? I think the intentions are good, but it’s possibly a lack of understanding of the controls already in place.
“Accountability and transparency are great, and we have to have it, but duplicating it on two different levels is just unnecessary and will be extremely expensive.”

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