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Lawmakers surprised by parks office decision

News of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries andParks’ upcoming exit from Brookhaven came as a surprise to LincolnCounty’s legislators – both past and present – who feel largelypowerless to keep the state agency local.

Former District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett, who helped steer theDistrict Five office to Brookhaven when MDWF&P began shoppingfor locations in 1996, said it was easy to locate the office in acounty-owned building and thought doing so would guarantee theoffice’s longevity.

“We were certainly disappointed when the county decided the taxassessor needed it, and I’m sure she did,” Barnett said, referringto Lincoln County Tax Assessor Nancy Jordan. “It makes me wish, ina way, that maybe we’d gone for a privately-owned building.”

MDWF&P is moving out of Brookhaven to Percy Quin State Park,just south of McComb, this fall after Lincoln County supervisorsvoted unanimously not to renew the department’s lease on thecounty-owned District Five headquarters building on South SecondStreet. Supervisors plan to renovate the building for use by theexpanding Lincoln County Tax Assessor’s Office.

Barnett said he is still hopeful the office can be kept inBrookhaven, calling on local legislators to step in and try toinfluence the situation.

“I still say we could save this thing,” he said. “Any time wehave a (state) office here in Brookhaven, it’s a plus for us. Ithink it’s real important we still try to save it.”

But current legislators are scratching their heads as to whysupervisors would oust the state agency, and scratching furtherwhen asked for ideas to keep MDWF&P in Brookhaven.

“I’m trying to think what the Legislature could actually do tohelp at this point, but it sounds like the ship has sailed,” saidDistrict 53 Rep. Bobby Moak. “All the general legislation deadlineshave passed. So, it would be just the budget, which of course istaking a hit right now.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie also said there is nothing theLegislature can do to keep MDWF&P in Brookhaven.

“We give them a budget and they rent a building out of thatbudget,” she said.

Currie went on to voice her displeasure with supervisors forvoting to let the department’s lease expire.

“I thought this was handled badly,” she said. “I think that ifthis had been handled appropriately, where we could all sit downtogether and discuss the needs of both agencies – the wildlife andfisheries department and the tax office – we could have come upwith something that was agreeable to both parties. The supervisorsshould have considered the fact we’re about to lose jobs in LincolnCounty.”

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said she was working on theSenate floor when representatives from MDWF&P approached herand shared their surprise at being ousted suddenly from theDistrict Five headquarters.

“They said they did not expect to be removed from theirbuilding, and it was pretty much a shock when they got the evictionnotice,” she said. “I feel like the decision has been made and Ivery much regret they are leaving.”

MDWF&P Maj. Lane Ball, the southern regional administrator,said the department understands supervisors’ decision to let theoffice’s lease expire, assuring that no one from MDWF&P isupset about the pending relocation of the District Five office.

Ball did agree, however, that his agency was caught off guard bythe cancellation of the District Five office’s lease.

“Was there any warning? No,” he said. “We were absolutely happyto stay in Lincoln County. Lincoln County is in the middle of thedistrict, and it was convenient for us to be here. Seven of the 12counties in District Five touch Lincoln County.”

Ball said supervisors offered to lease offices in the oldKeystone-Seneca manufacturing plant, but the offer was turned down.He said the building – which was built in 1956 and has stood emptyfor two years – was not considered by MDWF&P to be an adequatedistrict office.

Choices for a new office in Pike County were more favorable.Though the district office is bound for relocation at Percy Quin,Ball said Pike County supervisors approached him less than one weekafter news broke of the department’s forthcoming exit fromBrookhaven and offered to house the headquarters in the oldNational Guard armory in Magnolia for $500 per month.