Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. May 31, 2022.

Editorial: Two Major State Challenges

Mississippi lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for a variety of accomplishments this legislative season, including raising teacher pay up to national levels, implementing medical marijuana, reducing the state income tax and funding local infrastructure, among others. Certainly the influx of federal COVID disaster funds has helped matters.

But there are still two big tasks ahead with which the state must deal.

First, our prisons are a mess. Guard pay is too low to recruit good staff, leading to high levels of gang-related bribery and prison contraband. Rehabilitation programs are minimal and must be vastly expanded. Alabama, which is under federal decree, is being forced to spend $2 billion on prison reform, according to Mississippi Speaker Philip Gunn. That’s an amount Mississippi could not afford. Thanks to a conservative federal judge, Mississippi is not currently under federal decree. Our state has a narrow window of opportunity to get its prison act together and avoid a hugely expensive federal takeover.

Another major problem in our state is mental health. Mississippi has dragged its feet in converting from big centralized mental health facilities to a greater number of smaller-scale, localized community-based treatment programs, such as Greenwood is fortunate to have at Life Help mental health center.

As a result of this inaction, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health is under federal court decree, presided over by Jackson federal District Judge Carlton Reeves. The independent monitor, Dr. Michael Hogan, presented one of his first reports earlier this month. “Substantial progress” is being made, Hogan reported, but we still have a long way to go. For instance, far too many civil commitments are waiting in jail cells because there is no bed in a mental health facility. Hogan stated: “A particularly troubling aspect of this was that people who are waiting for a state hospital bed in some instances had to wait in jail until a bed became available. A number of state hospital beds are taken up by people who have been committed to that hospital but do not have a serious mental illness. They might have conditions like dementia or a developmental disability or substance abuse problem without having a serious mental illness, and these are people who need care but for whom the state hospital is not the right place.” Hogan stressed the need for better documentation throughout the tracking process of mental health patients.

A big part of the mental health problem is the fragmented nature of the process. Some patients have private insurance; others use Medicaid; state hospitals are funded by the Legislature. The federal nature of our local, state and national services make centralized tracking, treatment and funding challenging at best. What’s ultimately needed is for local, state and federal mental health agencies to combine forces into one uniform program from start to finish. The current system is so fragmented that professionals have trouble navigating its complexity, much more so the mentally challenged people who are in dire need. There is much work to be done.

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Columbus Dispatch. May 25, 2022.

Editorial: Oktibbeha supervisor’s approach to road funds is inefficient, selfish

Until the late 1980s, Mississippi’s 82 counties operated under a “beat” system of government.

Today, 44 counties have converted to a unit system of government, including the Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties. (Clay is still a beat system.) Yet as Shakespeare noted long ago, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Under a unit system, the administration of roads (planning, funding, construction, purchase of equipment and supplies, employment, and so forth) is conducted on the basis of the needs of the county as a whole, without regard to district boundaries. A unit system requires the appointment of a county administrator and a road manager.

Under the “beat” system, a county is divided into five “beats” with each supervisor responsible for road and bridge maintenance and, more importantly, the funds necessary to maintain those roads and bridges. That kind of autonomy led to corruption because there was no accountability. Each supervisor had his turf and did as he pleased.

How bad was it? Between 1984 and 1987, the FBI, with the cooperation of state auditor Ray Mabus, conducted Operation Pretense, a sting operation involving purchasing activities in 26 counties. Seventy-one public officials, including 55 of the state’s 410 county supervisors, were ultimately convicted on felony charges.

The move to a unit system not only created accountability, it also helped counties make more efficient use of their roads/bridges dollars.

Oktibbeha County operates under a unit system, but perhaps only nominally.

Supervisors there have divided the roads/bridges funds equally among the five districts, which is a de facto beat arrangement. In this case, that which we call a “unit” by any other name is still, well, not very sweet.

For starters, when the needs exceed the funds available, dividing those funds equally means every district gets some money, but no district gets enough. And in those situations, turf wars may emerge.

How bad has it gotten? During a work session last week, District 5 supervisor Joe Williams suggested returning the $1 million in state funds provided to the county because there was not enough money to complete a road project in his district.

Other supervisors, most notably District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer, were aghast. Trainer suggested the shortfall could be covered by bond funds set aside for each district, which led Williams to say, essentially, “mind your own business.”

If that’s not a beat system, we don’t know what you would call it.

Under a true unit system, resources can be pooled, and a county can take advantage of an economy of scale — the bigger the project, the more competitive the bidding process, which ultimately saves taxpayer dollars.

It also helps prevent a hodge-podge of road projects that are determined by no other criteria but geography.

Oktibbeha County isn’t unique to the fight over road funds. We’ve seen the same territorial approach to road funds in Clay County and the City of Columbus over the years.

In every case, we have yet to see how this “every man for himself” produces the best result.

We fear the same is happening in Oktibbeha County.

Supervisors are supposed to serve dual roles, representing the people in their district, certainly, but also the interests of all country residents, regardless of the districts they live in.

Rather than a planned and coordinated effort to maintain roads and bridges, the de facto beat approach leads to infighting and inefficiency.

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