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State takes $65K from Lincoln County for district bill — County pays for leaving agency after deadline

State money-handlers are keeping a chunk of Lincoln County’s cash to pay for membership in an organization that will be dead in less than 60 days.

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors on Monday was informed the state Department of Finance and Administration will dock the county $65,872.14 in tax revenue payments to settle up unpaid membership dues to the Pearl River Basin Development District, a grant-disbursement agency shutting down July 1. The district claims the county owes a full year of dues for killing its membership improperly, and DFA is collecting on its behalf.

“It’s difficult to be civil when someone takes $65,000 from your back pocket,” said Lincoln County Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop. “I understand why, but you don’t have to like it.”

Lincoln County decided to leave PRBDD after it announced last April it was running out of funds and would close down in 2018. Supervisors didn’t see the point in paying for membership in an organization with no cash to operate, so it removed the tax millage generating membership dues from the fiscal year 2018 budget that took effect Oct. 1 last year.

But state law requires participating counties to make membership decisions annually by March 15, and that deadline had passed before the district fessed up to its nearing end. House Bill 593, which kills PRBDD on July 1 and was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant March 15, includes language that allows the state to collect on outstanding debts to the district.

Supervisors received official notice from DFA in a letter late last month announcing it would do just that.

“We have a hard enough time meeting our expenses and keeping the tax base in line without dealing with surprise expenses like this,” Bishop said.

Romaine Richards, a special assistant attorney general, said the money withheld from Lincoln County would pay for expenses generated by PRBDD during its final year of operation. She said the organization is funded a year in advance, and supervisors would have needed to leave PRBDD before the annual budgeting assessment was made in order to be free and clear of responsibility.

Supervisors are miffed at PRBDD for not announcing the coming closure last year until after the March 15 membership deadline. District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown said PRBDD was always helpful with instructions and deadlines when grant money was available, but supervisors feel left in the dark about rules concerning withdrawal.

“They should have come around in February and told us they were going out of business and said, ‘you need to take these steps to close it out,’” he said. “There really was no reason for us to put money into something that was shutting down, and everybody thought that was the right thing to do. I still believe it was the right thing to do.”

Brown said Lincoln County had a great relationship with PRBDD, and he believes the investment was mostly recouped in grants awarded through the years. Supervisors leaned heavily on PRBDD grant funding for the development of several projects at the Lincoln Civic Center.

“This was just bad business, here,” Brown said. “I wish they would have let them keep operating, because we did have some success with them.”

PRBDD was created by the Legislature in 1964 to oversee and assist in the growth of public assets in the counties in the river basin. Public parks operated by PRBDD are being sold or given to member counties as the agency prepares for its demise.