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Lincoln County backing bridges lawsuit against governor

Lincoln County will offer its backing to a lawsuit against the governor and several state agencies over bridge closures, but is stopping short of joining the suit as a plaintiff.

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors on Monday directed board attorney Bob Allen to file an amicus curiae (literally, “friend of the court”) offering the board’s support to Jasper and Smith counties, which are suing Gov. Phil Bryant and three state agencies in an attempt to overturn the governor’s emergency declaration in April that closed 106 bridges statewide. The county’s amicus brief would offer expertise or documentation to the counties bringing the challenge, allowing supervisors to show their support for the effort without getting involved directly.

“The brief will show them our concerns,” Allen said.

Attorneys for Jasper and Smith counties filed the lawsuit last Thursday in Hinds County Chancery Court. It seeks a temporary restraining order against the governor’s order on the grounds the bridge closures have created “significant and widespread hardship” to citizens in those counties, and would allow supervisors there to reopen bridges closed by the declaration. 

More than 600 bridges have been closed statewide since the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered Mississippi to contract with out-of-state engineering firms for a comprehensive inspection of county-owned bridges statewide. The $31 million inspection has riled supervisors and engineers across Mississippi, who are dealing with unprecedented road and bridge closures, unplanned expenses and blame for the sorry condition of the state’s rural transportation network.

It was such an accusation of blame — made by the governor — that got supervisors fired up Monday. In his response to the lawsuit, Bryant said, “Had counties done their job, I would not have had to exercise my authority.”

The remark did not sit well with District 1 Supervisor and board President Jerry Wilson, or with District 3 Supervisor Nolan Earl Williamson. Wilson made a motion for the board to join Jasper and Smith counties’ lawsuit as a third plaintiff, and Williamson was ready to provide a second. District 5 Supervisor Doug Falvey said he didn’t agree with the motion, and Allen cooled things down by suggesting the amicus brief.

“For (the governor) to make that statement was out of line,” Wilson said.

Williamson said the governor’s statement was a “slap in the face” to engineers and supervisors.

“We ain’t like them — we don’t have the funds to build a bridge like the Taj Mahal,” he said. “We have to close the road.”

Since bridge-closure orders were first handed down last summer, supervisors have closed 37 bridges and spent more than $3.1 million on repairing and replacing bad spans. The money came from a $5 million loan supervisors took out to cover the short-term fixes.

Another round of federal inspections is scheduled for late summer or early fall, and supervisors are expecting more closures. Lincoln County ranks second in the state in number of bridges with timber substructures at 108, and ranks third in number of total bridges with 306. Hinds County leads the state in both categories.

“Thirty-one million would go a long way on our bridges,” said District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown.