Officials pursue center loan

Published 8:00 pm Friday, May 18, 2012

WESSON – Aldermen Thursday approved a plan to seek a state loan to assist with two local projects, but not without first being chastised for a perceived lack of transparency in their handling of city business.

     As part of an overall project to restore the Old Wesson Public School building for use as a community center, the board voted to seek a $250,000 loan from the Mississippi Development Authority to help complete the school project and leave the city with some funds for road and street repairs.

     “By following this process, we will have in essence solved, or at least strongly contributed to the resolution of two main issues that have plagued us for years, that being the restoration of our old school and road repair,” said Mayor Alton Shaw in a letter that circulated prior to last night’s hearing.

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     City leaders have been working on the school restoration project for several years, first with the intention of using it as a leadership school for boys but now as a community center. The city has received between $1.75 and $2 million in grants and other appropriations for the project.

     Now, in an effort to take advantage of tax credits for the restoration of historic buildings, the city is expected to be able to gain an additional $500,000 to $600,000 from the tax credit sale. Shaw said the exact amount the city could receive would depend on the bidding process at the sale.

     The plan would see the MDA loan repaid to the state in about four to five months and leave the city with a surplus of around $250,000 to $300,000 that could be used for road and street repairs. Last night’s hearing was for public comment and to approve the city’s application for the state loan.

     In her comments to the board, resident Jean Ricks emphasized she was not opposed to the plans for the old school or the loan.

     “What I have a problem with is a lack of specificity in how the loan will be repaid,” she said.

     Ricks pointed out the public notice of last night’s hearing was only published in the legals section of the newspaper and called for more transparency by city officials. Her comments also touched on better availability of board meeting agendas and minutes and the annual budget.

     “We could be in a hole as deep as China or we could be wealthy,” Ricks said. “We don’t know.”

     She questioned how the city would have funds for road work under the plan.

     “It all sounds absolutely wonderful if it works,” Ricks said.

     Shaw, speaking via a telephone since he was out of town on business, said the city would make meeting agendas and other information available at the town library across from city hall. He also pointed out the availability of town-related information on its website at

      The mayor reviewed and explained the tax credit and loan process to the hearing audience of less than 10 people. He said any entity that wanted to take advantage of the tax credit plans could and maintained the street repair funds would be a big benefit for Wesson.

     “This remains a good way to get some things done for that,” Shaw said.

     City residents voiced some concerns about the potential loss of sales tax revenue should the city be unable to repay the MDA loan and sought guarantees the city would be able to do so.

     City Attorney Jeff Varas summarized the tax credit and loan process and indicated that cities and counties seeking MDA loans is a fairly common practice across the state. He also pointed out there is much flexibility in how the city could replay the loan, possibly over a multi-year period, if the tax credit sale doesn’t generate the expected funding.

     “They’re not coming in and saying, ‘We’re shutting you down,'” Varas said about how MDA officials work with communities.

     Ricks called last night’s hearing a “legitimate discussion” on the plans. Aldermen then voted unanimously to seek the MDA loan.

     Shaw said the community center is expected to be completed and ready for use later next month. He added he already received several calls from people interested in using it for various activities.

     He said the main floor will be 100 percent done, with the second floor about 25 percent and needing more work before it is ready for use. He added the city planned to complete the project and hold a grand opening before publicizing its availability.