Rinaldi Report: Municipal Election Choices

Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday vote for city leaders this year

Ronaldi Reagan said it best when campaigning against Jimmy Carter. He asked voters to consider 'whether they were better off than four years ago.' Voters knew they weren't better off and voted Carter out and Reagan in.

On a local level, we could pose the same question the same question. Are Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday better off than they were four years ago? Economically, we'd say no. In Vidalia, it's obvious that politically, government reforms, initiated by a new mayor and board of aldermen, have made a big and positive difference in the way government is run. For poor Ferriday, it's safe to say Ferriday's always in economic trouble. There is no real tax base and no way to help government improve the community without more revenue. The people can't pay more. Ferriday is stuck on a merry-go-round of inadequate revenues and poor services.

For Natchez, which has does have resources, the failures of the current administration are legion and less excusable. The Grennell administration has done so badly, there's the growth of the lobbying group, OneBoard, which wants to do away with city government entirely. This city administration has been marked by in-fighting, rampant illegalities, lawsuits, personnel instability and lying. It has just one accomplishment, the building of a civil rights memorial, which was promised to be built with donations and instead was built with taxpayers' money. (Let's not dwell on the lies.) The city's venture into community and downtown development has amounted to nothing. Mr. Grennell's exit is appropriate. He and his fellows started off poorly and did worse as time went by.

We expect a large field of candidates in the Natchez city elections this year. Yet it is  unsure whether the electorate feels a need, like county voters did, "to throw the bums out." In past, despite poor performance, city aldermen have held onto their jobs. What will happen in 2020?

For more than 30 years, Natchez mayoral candidates have argued their leadership would result in an economic revitalization. That rebirth hasn't happened. In fact, city government's antics have increased the speed of the decline. It seems that a new mayor would need to 1) offer an anti-crime initiative and 2) restore faith in the operation of city government. You can't accomplish anything in the community without your own house in order. And city government is a big messy mess. A new mayor must show some plan that will bring good management to city operations.

The core of Natchez city government revolves around these functions: police, fire, public works, seniors and transportation activities, tourism and convention center activities, planning, engineering and traffic departments (not counting the water works, which is managed separately). What is the plan for each? Realistically, you can't do much without money. Since sales tax revenues are flat, the city won't be getting more revenue to speak of. That means a reordering of revenues away from some departments and toward the police department is required. As of now, we have just two or three cops on the street per shift, paying starting cops $15 an hour. That's not a successful approach. Some spotty improvements in crime-fighting are more the result of AdamsCounty deputies bringing their services into the city on a daily basis. Police and crime management is a priority.

We should all be very critical of incumbents' misstating of their achievements, just as we should be wary of challengers' windy exclamations that the Promised Land is just around the corner.

City government in Natchez has no control over public education. Forget reform there. Aldermen can try to improve the quality of their appointments to the school board. And that's about all. In Concordia, voters get to choose their school board members, and therefore, have more input.

If you really want to know how our communities are doing in recent years, take a look at the Census figures and estimates for population. Ferriday: 3,327 (-284 persons, -8.1%), Vidalia: 3,916 (-383 persons, -8.9%), Natchez 15,009 (-783 persons, -5.0%). In 1990, Natchez had a population of 19,535. Natchez has lost 4,526 persons or 23.2% of its population in 30 years. While death and birth rates remain very close to their rates of a generation ago, it's obvious that economics are driving people away. People are giving up on the Miss-Lou. They're moving away.

We can sing songs in praise of wonderful Natchez, but really, it's the people we know here, our families and friends, that make the community attractive even its present state. Despite significant aesthetics, Natchez continues to fall apart. The overwhelming poverty of the place, the loss in jobs, and now the crime, makes it unlikely the population trends will change. The trend line is still down. Fortunately, Vidalia government seems to be in the process of stabilizing its house at least, a good step. Vidalia has been able to cut city spending and add a few private sector jobs, trying to reverse some of the losses. For Ferriday and Natchez, the outlook is still very depressing.

In 2020, voters will have the chance to elect new officials or stay with the incumbents. What voters decide will play a role in the communities' futures. A few good leaders can make a difference (like Vidalia), just as a few bad leaders can. At foremost, voters should choose candidates that are at least competent enough and energetic enough to improve the workings of government itself, before trying to solve the general ills of the community.

We expect our city politicians to do a good job, as they have been chosen by us and get paid by us. A better government makes a better community. Set high expectations and remain wary of the "snake oil salesmen." We've had too many of those already.

Video courtesy of Precision Optical, 29 Sgt. Prentiss Dr., Natchez, 601-442-5024. Call for an appointment for a comprehensive eye exam with Dr. Harold Jefcoat. Treating children and adults.

Rinaldi Report: To Be or Not to Be

Should Natchez, Inc. money be given to Film Natchez?

by Peter Rinaldi

Natchez aldermen voted to re-allocate their contribution to Natchez, Inc. to Film Natchez. The Mississippi Legislature must approve the change, as the contribution of the city and county to Natchez, Inc. is set by law, an agreement of the participants when the agency was first formed. The contribution would still flow through Natchez, Inc. But Film Natchez would get the money.

Natchez, Inc. has done a better jobs than its predecessor, the Natchez-Adams Economic Development Authority. Chandler Russ is the best economic director we've had. I write this while acknowledging that some of his pronouncements to the public have not always been candid or truthful. The role of the agency in some of the economic development deals has been over-hyped and many of the promised economic jobs and announcements turned to dust almost moments after they were uttered. Probably the biggest catastrophe, endorsed and led by Natchez, Inc., was the supervisors' purchase of the Rentech property for $9.2 million, a calamity beyond calamities. Rentech should have sold its own property itself. AdamsCounty taxpayers did not need this albatross.

At the same time, we need a successful Natchez, Inc., simply because we have nothing else in the works that would do us better to recruit jobs and industry.

If the city's allocation to Natchez, Inc. remains $175,000-$200,000 or so, that money should be reserved for Natchez, Inc. and not turned over to Film Natchez, an unproven start-up group with links to the private sector movie business.

One critic of the idea has already written me, "All Film Natchez will do is promote their own private sector movie projects, using the city of Natchez's money as promotional seed money for Tate's company."  Of course, if that actually happened, such behavior would be illegal. But whose going to catch them or monitor them? The aldermen will not supervise this donation, just as they do not supervise most of the spending within the city itself.

The city is not flush with cash either. That's why it's not allocating cash for Natchez Inc. and extra cash for Film Natchez. Taking away $175-200k from the base budget of Natchez Inc is not wise. And giving a start-up a large $200k donation isn't smart either.

We hope our local legislators will think this through and decide not to endorse this transfer of cash to Film Natchez. If aldermen are flush with dollars next budget year, they can put an additional and appropriately modest amount in their community donations for such film industry promotion.

For additional information on Film Natchez, go to filmnatchez.com. You will see its board of directors includes luminaries like Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer, as well as the CVB director Jennifer Combs. I'm not sure Combs membership on the board passes the ethics "smell" test. As director of the CVB and director of Film Natchez, she is trying to secure city tax monies for her own private sector non-profit. Questionable.

Of course, in reality, Film Natchez is Tate Taylor's baby. And Combs is on the board, not only for her career experience, but mostly because she's a good tie-in to city hall. Sneaky politics or good politics?

Watch Your Property Taxes

Your county tax assessor can determine your property tax bite

by Peter Rinaldi

Property owners are necessarily concerned about the millage rate set by the board of supervisors. Not only do supervisors levy taxes but the school board contributes to increases in property tax. Under Mississippi law, the county is required to pass on most increases from the schools. The schools will request an additional budget amount, for example, $200,000. The county converts that to millage and automatically adds the request to the budget. County leaders could absorb the school board increase in their budget of more than $27 million but rarely do. Supervisors then set their millage as part of their overall budget, which gets passed on or before Sept. 15 for the new budget year starting Oct. 1.

It almost escapes property owners' attention that the tax assessor plays a dramatic and significant role in the setting of their taxes. While the school board and the supervisors, catch all the political flak and ire of voters, the assessor has much to do with the actual property tax bill you pay because those property taxes are based on his assessed value.

Adams County has two tax assessor candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, Doug Atkins and Larry Hughes. The winning candidate will play an important role in determining your tax bite. Mississippi uses complicated formulas where residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural properties are valued at different rates, usually less than market value. And property like inventory and equipment is taxed as well. It's up to the assessor to determine the real value of your property. And his interpretation can increase or lower your tax bill significantly. That assessment value is used to determine your county tax, school tax and your city property tax.

Since both candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot are without actual assessor experience, it would be wise for the candidate elected to secure the services of Michael Pace, the current deputy assessor, who has in-depth assessing experience, formal education in the field and an expert's knowledge of Mississippi's rules and regulations. While neither candidate has said publicly whether he will keep Pace employed either in-house or as a contractor, it would be a shame if we lost such a talented man to a nearby county or parish.

You have a right as a property owner to see your property tax record and ask the assessor or his deputy to explain how the tax was figured. And if you think his value assigned is too high, you can present reasons why it should be lowered. Citing comparisons of the assessed value of neighbors' similar property is a good way to provide evidence that the assessor may have made an error. The last two weeks of July are the time to challenge your tax assessment. After the rolls are closed at the end of July, you have to wait another year before the assessor can legally adjust your assessed value. If the assessor does not agree with your view (and you have compelling evidence that he is incorrect), you can always appeal his valuation to the board of supervisors, which will hold a public hearing on your claim. If the supervisors turn you down, you can file suit in circuit court and the judge will rule on your evidence.

Generally, the assessor's race is overlooked as being an important contest, like a sheriff's race or supervisor race. However, if your home, business, land or equipment is of significant value, you should take the time to evaluate the two assessor candidates.  It's a big deal who wins this seat and could be a giant deal to you personally and the county as well, if voters choose the wrong man.

The Adams County Tax Assessor's records are up to date, professionally done. And the system now in place is balanced, fair and also legal. Reynolds Atkins, Michael Pace and their staff have done a good job. Which candidate on the Nov. 5 ballot is the better choice to continue that success?

Conservative Crime-Fighting

Law enforcement and judges can stop the cycle of violence in Natchez-Adams County

by Peter Rinaldi

Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong and Mayor Darryl Grennell held a news conference in which they announced that murders were on the ebb and crime was decreasing. No one can remember a time in our modern day history when 14 people were shot and killed in a year, like in 2018. If we have just have a half dozen murders of Natchez-AdamsCounty residents by the end of 2019, that's not exactly an accomplishment or something to crow about.

City hall remains the home to our own crime deniers, and they have a few like-minded fools in the community who feel the same way. Saying crime isn't that bad or all towns have crime are excuses for not dealing with the specific problems we face. Natchez is in the bottom 1% of safe communities when you consider both property crime and violent crime. And placing a few cameras here and there are not going to change the basic climate of shooting, until those 100-150 or so shooters or potential shooters are all in jail for a long time.

Travis Patten's Democratic nomination is not an endorsement of our current crime-fighting methods. Patten defeated two weak challengers. Voters chose Patten as the person better than his two opponents, a simple statement that voters liked the incumbent better than the challengers. The same exercise will occur in November, when voters get to choose Patten or Adam Kirk, again an endorsement of the person, versus an actual vote on the efficacy of our anti-crime efforts. Most citizens know we have far too much crime in our city and county. That crime, which has been increasing and evolving over time in the last decade. It will destroy Natchez-AdamsCounty as we have known it, if the type of policing and judicial practice we use now remains the same.

Some judges aren't helping. Over the years, Adams County Justice Court has been inconsistent in its bonding practices, allowing criminals who are already out on bond to post bond again for a second felony crime. Many recog bonds have been awarded when the conditions of arrest do not justify those get-out-of-jail-free cards. Adams County Circuit Court has been lax in sentencing. Repeat felons are allowed to plea to suspended sentences. Hardened drug dealers are allowed into a drug program which should be used for addicts only not dealers.

We will have a new district attorney starting in January, Shameca Collins. Collins said in her campaign, "Being tough on crime doesn't mean you have to destroy lives. You can put programs in place that will reform our young men and women before they become another statistic."

Talk about a bunch of liberal baloney. There are basically no local programs (other than drug court itself) and no funding for such wide-eyed, cuddly programs. And there's not going to be any that can solve our crime problems. Collins lets you know that she does not want to " incarcerate." She wants to "reform."

But, of course, it's not her job to reform. Her job as district attorney is to prosecute felons, get convictions and argue to the judge for an appropriate sentence for the criminal for the crime committed, nothing else. She's not supposed to be a do-gooder, soft hearted or weak-kneed to the criminals who terrorize us. We already have Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders filling that role.

Take a look at some of the numbers of people in the Adams County Jail right now: murder or attempted murder (9), robbery or attempted robbery (3), assault or aggravated assault (8), drugs and drug dealing (8), felony child abuse (2), shooting or drive-by shooting (3), burglary and break-ins (7), weapons charges (2), accessory to murder (1). (There are 75 people in the jail as of this writing. Some of the descriptions of charges on the sheriff's website are unclear, as "foreign warrant" or "sleeper." So I couldn't tell what crimes the bad men and women allegedly committed.) Which of these kind souls would Collins like to reform? 
 
Face it. Some people are just evil. And they will do evil again if permitted to do so.

If convicted, felons should not be on the street. Put them in jail for appropriate sentences and at least some will figure out that if they want to stay free, they can't commit crime. It's hard to get inmates' moral reformation. It's much easier to convince them that jail is pain and if they want to avoid pain, then they shouldn't do crime.

If they do well in the big house, the perps get out early. If not, they do their sentence. The murderers should get life or the death penalty as dictated by their actions.

We hope that Collins will wake up soon. She's supposed to be our prosecutor and protector in AdamsCounty and Southwest Mississippi. Collins and Circuit Judges Lillie Sanders and Debra Blackwell have more control over the results of our crime-fighting efforts than almost anyone in AdamsCounty.

Collins and the judges are not going to be able to reform society or create enviable economic conditions, put daddies in every household, create belief in morals and God, all factors that deter crime. But what can be done is to make sure the 500 or so felony offenders who juries convict actually go to jail, reducing the numbers of thugs on the street.

It's a simple numbers game. The more felons (especially repeat felons) you put in jail, the safer the community stays. There is no realistic alternative to incarceration to protect citizens' lives and property.

Rinaldi Report: One Direction

Should city and county governments be made one?

by Peter Rinaldi

The political unhappiness of Natchez-Adams County residents has increased in the last few years. There are several factors that contributed to this change: 1) the declining economy, 2) the failure of government to begin a turn-round, 3) warring between the city, county and schools and 4) the frustration of voters and taxpayers in being able to effect reforms.

Now a group of citizens have come forward with the idea of "OneBoard," a measure that would end city government as we know it and roll its functions into county government. The rationale behind the idea is that our local government could be more efficient, more effective and use dollars more wisely, if duplication and overlap were eliminated. There is the potential that more money could be freed up for law enforcement, fire protection and public works if done properly. Just for those reasons alone, citizens and our elected leaders should be looking at this idea. Also, the population has declined significantly. Perhaps all we need is one government instead of two.

OneBoard has gathered several thousand signatures of voters for its petition in support. But no one knows how widespread this support really is. If there is to be an end to city government, then the city aldermen have to vote so, the supervisors have to vote to take on the extra responsibilities and the Mississippi Legislature must approve as well.

The OneBoard volunteers have asked supervisors to consider placing a non-binding referendum on the November ballot to gauge public support for the idea of an end to city government and a takeover of its responsibilities by the county.

So far, the supervisors have listened carefully to Paul Benoist's arguments requesting the vote. But our county leaders have not yet scheduled the initiative for November. Miss-Lou Magazine believes it is in the best interest of city and county to consider this ballot proposition.

More than a decade ago, supervisors scheduled a vote to measure public support for a recreation initiative. The response was overwhelming. Citizens wanted a massive upgrade in the community's recreational facilities. It was extremely helpful to find out how the community felt as a whole.

Supervisors should gauge the public temperature on this issue as well. Natchez-Adams County governments are struggling to make ends meet because of the decrease in population. After years of small increases in sales tax and hefty property tax assessments gains, the numbers are now flat or declining. A decline in commercial activity will probably decrease revenues a bit more. There will be pressure on government to provide services without increasing taxes further. City government is so strapped, it has trouble making payroll or paying its employment taxes and other bills on time. Only Magnolia Bluffs Casino's massive influx of cash keeps city government barely afloat. There are good financial reasons to consider a new approach to government.

OneBoard's proposal is worthy of debate. Let's see what the voters think.

Rinaldi Report: Era of Change

Primary voting revealed a new black majority in Adams County

by Peter Rinaldi

This month's Democratic Primary in Adams County signaled a massive change in the demographics of our electorate, reflecting a voting shift that will affect both Adams County and Natchez elections over the next generation.

White candidates who staged good races against black candidates did less well than many expected. The contests for circuit clerk, tax collector, tax assessor and district attorney showed weakness in what traditionally would be called "the white vote." Black candidates finished strongly.

Additionally, more than 1,200 Adams County voters cast ballots in the GOP primary, preventing white Democratic candidates from posting big tallies. The local Republicans' affection for the statewide GOP races, helped shift the balance of power to traditional black Democratic candidates, unwittingly harming conservatism and conservative policy-making in the long run. Rigid idealism triumphed over practicality for their cause.

In heads-up races between whites and blacks, whites did poorly, challenging the assumption we hear so often, "the old guard runs everything in this community." Not anymore. The "new guard" is black and somewhat younger than those who ran the community in past, as even the 2016 Census indicated. The change in voting and office holding has been coming for some time. And the 2020 Census should confirm this trend.

But for anyone who had any doubts, the August primary election showed that Natchez-Adams County is a majority African-American community in both city and county, with both Democratic and Republican votes figured in. Black voters and officials will have more to say about how things are run than ever before. The white minority can be solicited for support or ignored.

That bodes well for the re-election of Mayor Grennell as well. While Grennell hasn't said officially said whether he's running again, the job is his to lose. In spite of all the messes at city hall, a black candidate, like Darryl, should poll much better than a white candidate for mayor in a heads-up race. Census figures show the city is more black than the county as a whole, which would give this mayor or former Mayor Phillip West an even better chance of re-election to the city's top spot.

Do not discount the ability of some candidates, black or white, to cross racial lines in voting. Coroner James Lee is the prime example. Over the years, Lee has had opponents of both races and beat them all. Adams County voters will vote for who they believe is best for the job, race aside. Chancery Clerk Brandi Lewis' win four years ago was also evidence of that.

While it's easy to see the black-white shift, the biggest stories to come out of the primary elections were Travis Patten's overwhelming vote and Wes Middleton's apparent upset of Mike Lazarus. Neither of these campaigns had much to do with race and serve as an example of how winning campaigns should be run. Patten still faces Adam Kirk and Brian Seyfarth in the November General Election. So the final chapter of that story has yet to be written.

I'm always surprised when I hear or read people commenting about how the so-labeled whitey-white, richy-rich garden clubs and "blue hairs" supposedly run the community. The idea falsely claims Natchez-Adams County is locked in the past and can't move on to a better future because of our "plantation mentality." Industry won't come because of our rigorous love for the old ways, which includes prejudice and discrimination. This is a total misjudgment of the current reality and ignores factors like education, crime, drug use, labor force quality, transportation, location and the new demographics.

The double-edged sword of discrimination cuts both ways, white against black and black against white. It's not just discrimination by whites that holds us back but discrimination by blacks as well.

It will be interesting to see how the new era evolves. My assumption is that people are people and regardless of color, they will embrace their little bigotries. We just love to fight and bias inevitably stirs a boiling pot to no good end.

Racial division encourages us to think the other race is the enemy or not worthy of respect. We draw conclusions about others' motivations and actions when we have no or little evidence of their wrongdoing. Such a harmful trait cements our poverty of mind (as well as poverty of wallet) and keeps us in constant strife. Manipulative politicians reinforce prejudices by telling their supporters, 'I'm protecting you from them,' when actually the candidates are just protecting themselves.

Natchez-Adams County does indeed change. This election cycle proves it. Demographically and economically, we've changed dramatically in the last 15 years. What is still true is that we continue to search for leaders capable of engineering an economic and societal turn-around.

The results are not always inspiring, leaving some voters with the feeling that elections are just a frivolous game of musical chairs. Candidates come and go. The names in office change over time, but government's drag on the community and ineptitude do not.

Rinaldi Report: Adams County Votes August 6

At least four of the five supervisors need replacement

by Peter Rinaldi

 

Are we better off today than we were four years ago? Are Adams County Supervisors doing a good job? Does Adams County have the leaders it needs?

 

You can't expect five supervisors on their own to lead us to the Promised Land, easing all our economic and societal problems. However, it is fair to ask if the five Adams County Supervisors have done a good enough job to deserve re-election.

 

If you look at the economy by itself and the supervisors' performance in job creation, you'd have to give this current Board a big fat whopping grade of F. Despite a series of lovely job and industry announcements of growth (most of which have not taken place or won't take place), the Mississippi Department of Employment Security says we have lost 190 jobs since 2015, and 1,120 jobs since 2011. Supervisors Lazarus, Carter, Hutchins and Butler have all been in office since 2011. Supervisor Gray was elected in 2015.

 

The economic picture has been so dismal, that incumbent Mike Lazarus posted on his Facebook page he wasn't responsible for job creation and economic development, that Natchez, Inc. was responsible. Lazarus tried to portray himself as a glorified road manager. After the hoots, hollers and catcalls buried him on FB, he took the post down.

 

Obviously, supervisors, with their administrative, executive, legislative and even minor judicial powers, have a prominent role to play in economic development. They set taxes, can buy or sell county land, recruit prospects and set a tone for growth for the community. Have they done this well or done this poorly?

 

Their two big stabs at economic development in the last few years supervisors bungled.

 

They purchased the IP-Rentech property, burdening county taxpayers with more than $9 million in debt. Rentech should have sold its own property without the county bailing the company out. Adding to the misery, supervisors started on a $4 million levee project for which they didn't have enough money of their or grant money either to finish the site.

 

As a result, taxpayer are mired in swamp land that floods regularly. On top of that, the levee site is way too small to hold major industries. Cost/benefit ratios don't look good on this scheme either.

 

Even with the whopping mistakes discounted, you don't see much from supervisors to help build economic activity. Instead, their tax policy has helped burden low and middle income households in Natchez-AdamsCounty.

 

While assessments rose, and individual taxpayers were paying as much as 40% more in recent years on their property tax bills, the kind supervisors even passed a rural fire tax to pound rural property owners some more. The county was collecting more and more money through reassessment and millage increases, while taxpayers were suffering.

 

Loss of income. Loss of jobs. The result was depopulation, in part due to the county's policy of increasing taxes.

 

And when there were a few times, when assessments rose dramatically, supervisors could have given property owners a millage decrease to make all the increases a little more palatable. They did not give the taxpayers a break. They simply took the extra money and spent more.

 

Supervisors never objected as body to the frequent increases in school taxes. They simply passed those taxes onto residents and businesses. Not a peep.

 

Supervisors have benefited from the news coverage of the last two years. The city government has been so woeful, it has captured most of the negative attention of the media and the citizens. Supervisors looked good in comparison to a hapless mayor and aldermen, who seem committed to firing, lying and lawsuits. You didn't hear much from the supervisors during this time, in part, because they weren't doing much.

 

When you go to the polls Aug. 6, Aug. 27, and Nov. 5, think of this. Are the supervisors we have now capable enough to lead Adams County toward growth, some prosperity and good governance? Do the currently elected five really have the substance, smarts and professional maturity to do a good job...to stage a turn-around?

 

Should we settle for second best, a government whose leaders appear incapable of coming up with competent short term and long term plans?

 

Or should the voters of AdamsCounty take a chance and elect some new folks to lead? The challengers don't have a track record of governmental success as yet. But they certainly don't have a track record of abject failure either like the five in office now.

 

When I retired in 2017 and moved to Florida, our wicked decline had already started., perhaps as long ago as 1983. Then in 2018, sick of being bored in retirement, I restarted Miss-Lou Magazine and www.miss-loumagazine.com. I had only been away from Natchez-AdamsCounty for a year and a half. But the speed of the decline in that 18 months was shocking. On top of the obvious commercial decline, people's attitudes were so bad. The population was like a bunch of beaten dogs, grown accustomed to bad government, bad times and bad news. That's just the way it is, some said. Others would say, things are looking up, when there was no evidence whatsoever that was the case.

 

I saw Natchez-Adams County as a community lost unto itself. No direction. No leadership. No reasonable plan to stage even a minor turn-around.

 

In every situation, no matter how negative or desperate, one or two individuals can make a difference in the outcome by applying intellect, energy, hard work with good ideas. This is the stuff of leadership. The current Board of Supervisors doesn't have this quality. Maybe some of the new folks, the challengers do.

 

I would encourage you to vote for change. If you believe the challenger is not up to the task and would not be better than the incumbent, then by all means, vote for the incumbent.

 

But as I sit here typing, and I have thought of this at length, at least four of the five supervisors need to be sent home. And it's your job, as a citizen, to vote for change when change is necessary.

 

Another reason I came back to Natchez-Adams County because the fight for better government and a better community is more important now than anytime in the 40+ years I've lived here. I would ask you to vote in the upcoming elections as if the life of the community depends on your vote and that of your neighbors.

 

Because it does.

Rinaldi Report: The Pivotal Vote

Maggie Smith and Sarah Rockstead are ready to help you at Precision Optical, 29 Sgt. Prentiss Drive, Natchez, 601-442-5024. Call to set your appointment for an eye exam with Dr. Harold Jefcoat.

by Peter Rinaldi

Some of the candidates in this year's Adams County primary elections have taken on the issues of community development and safety. Others, including the incumbents, have generally shied away from such talk, fearful that an open discussion of our economic failures and our rampant property and violent crime will impact their election chances negatively.

Some of the new candidates on the scene are worth electing. Others have yet to distinguish themselves as better choices than the reigning incumbents. What has been lacking is a definitive discussion of not only the problems we face, but what we should do specifically to improve Natchez-AdamsCounty.

Yes, the public schools stink. The criminals seem to have control of the streets. And break-ins are so commonplace that it's hard to get an officer to even write up a report about a break-in, never mind look for the culprit. The economic development issue is always a thorny one. We know we're failing. But what should we do to reverse the trends?

Just so we're all on the same page, let's look at one portion of the economic development picture. As of today, there are still some myopic folks saying the local economy and jobs picture are improving. Here are the facts: The average monthly employed figures show the number of jobs in AdamsCounty has dropped from 11,800 in 2011 to 10,800 as of 2018. a loss of 1,000 jobs. (Figures for 2019 are only available for January-May and show a continued slight decline.) This number includes both those who work in AdamsCounty and those who live in AdamsCounty but work outside the county. The number of AdamsCounty jobs has declined by 8.4% in the above mentioned years. Not surprisingly, Concordia Parish's story is similar, with a 7% decline in the number of jobs, though its 2018-2019 figures are more promising. The parish averages about 6,500 jobs now on a monthly basis. (Sources: Miss. Department of Employment Security, La. Workforce Commission).

The community seems to have settled into the concept that it will fund Natchez, Inc. to spur economic development, while the elected bodies, the supervisors and mayor and aldermen, pay a secondary role in job development. This method reinforces failure, as the history of Natchez, Inc. and its forerunner, the EDA, is one of public misstatements (mixed with lies), the championing of boondoggles (Rentech, for example) and a few minor credits (like von Drehle).

Remember that the three largest job creators in the past generation were Lady Luck Casino, Magnolia Bluffs Casino and the CCA prison. Natchez, Inc./EDA played no role in these. The casinos came here because of state legislation and the prison arrived because PikeCounty did not want it.

Unfortunately, Natchez, Inc. has spearheaded more than $11 million in recent projects (the purchase of Rentech-IP land and an unfinished and underfunded industrial levee) that are stark symbols for government foolishness.

Consider this. Would you rather see a Butch Brown executive-type lead our economic development effort or would you rather have the 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Natchez, Inc./EDA bureaucrats and a band of hapless supervisors and aldermen lead the way?

Over the years, AdamsCounty leaders have made a series of frightful impressions on our Washington, D.C., congressional leaders and their staffs, who in response to our visits made disparaging comments about our lack of professionalism. Unfortunately, the weakness of our presentation was readily apparent. This lack of professionalism may carry over to meetings with industrial prospects. Our leadership is reflective of our community's cultural and societal weaknesses. With Mayor Brown's retirement from the local political scene, we have no one with gravitas to champion our cause.

This is not a black-white thing, whether we have majority black or majority white government. We suffered from lousy government a generation ago, lousy white government. But the economy was much better. AdamsCounty had nearly 40,000 residents and 16,000 jobs in the early 1980s. It was a happy and prosperous time We often overlooked leaders' failings. Since that decline started in the mid-1980s, the economy has become so impoverished, the failings of government have also become more visible. Competence and results should remain the test not skin color. That's why this county election is so important -- competence and results.

Supervisors, as a group, are oblivious as a group to their real and most important task -- the drive to improve the community economically, while providing cost-efficient government services. They get lost in a blizzard of details. There is no direction (except downward), because there is no overall plan to deal with our economic ills and social problems which can be affected by local government spending and energy. One supervisor went Facebook to talk about the great job he was doing with ditches and roads.

He described himself glowingly as an expert road manager or foreman, not a policy maker or expert administrator. He's a guy that deserves re-election, so he says, just because he can pick up downed tree limbs.

The county will spend a heap of extra money between now and election day on patching a few roads and cutting grass, with little thought giving to making government more effective. Perhaps the politicians should run on the campaign theme, "Be satisfied with less. If you think long enough and hard enough, less is really more."

For those of us who believe in our hearts that AdamsCounty is truly a special place with the ability to do much better, accepting less or tolerating poor performance by our leaders is not an option anymore. Only a reversal of current trends will be acceptable. You can't live on idle hopes forever.

Our community's story mirrors that of the boasting baker. If every day, the baker talks about baking a cake but doesn't actually ever bake one, then he's not really a good baker. If a supervisor talks regularly about his successful leadership and nothing positive actually happens, then he is neither successful nor a leader. It's time to bake that cake.

Miss-Lou Magazine encourages you to vote in the Aug. 6 primary, the Aug. 27 runoff and the Nov. 5 general election. Vote for real leaders, as the imitation ones haven't gotten us very far.

Rinaldi Report: A Question of Leadership

Can supervisors really be the leaders of our county?

by Peter Rinaldi

Just why have so many people qualified to run for the job of Adams County Supervisor this year?  First, the post is an attractive one. Supervisors earn more than $60,000 a year in salary, retirement benefits and health insurance. It doesn’t take a wizard to understand that having such a job improves one’s economic health. Second, there appears to be great dissatisfaction among voters with the performance of this Board of Supervisors in light of the economy. For many residents, the Board appears to be working against the interests of the citizens, more out of a lack of ability versus any nefarious plan.

It’s sad that after more than 25 years of concerted effort, Natchez, Inc., the EDA and supervisors have yet to bring enough jobs to the community to make up for continuing losses. The local economy has been topsy-turvy, with many business closures. We've lost another 200 jobs in the county in the past four years. Supervisors appear content to let Natchez, Inc. do its thing. And the thing isn't working.

Despite the economic hard times, supervisors have received generous increases in tax revenues from taxpayers, in part because of reassessment. The reassessments allowed for more spending. Supervisors didn't give a taxpayers a break by lowering millage. County leaders got more, so they spent more.

The supervisors' budget remains fluid not set in stone. The body tends to appropriate large, unbudgeted sums for special projects in some years. These are not emergency expenditures, but those that should be anticipated and put in the budget at the beginning of the year. Coming to the board mid-year for requests for patrol cars or road equipment, etc. is manipulative. These costs can be anticipated. The smarter department heads have learned there are two budgets: the one you get Oct. 1 and your second smaller allocation in the spring.

Adding reassessment, school board requests and occasional millage increases, many homeowners and businesses have suffered 50-65% increases in their property taxes over the past decade. The same whopping increases can affect car tags, equipment and inventory. (The state keeps changing the depreciation schedules on cars, so that taxpayers pay higher tax amounts for a longer period of time.)

Adams County households are taxed at a disproportionately high rate, when you consider their pitifully low incomes. The high taxation situation discourages investment and contributes to the decision of residents to leave town. And it certainly adds to the problem of attracting new people. When a $100,000 in-city house can cost $1,800 in property taxes (city-county-schools), why would people invest here? (That's almost double the rate of taxation in some nearby Southern states.)

For many voters, it’s time to “throw some of the bums out.”Even with all the problems in county government, it will not be easy to displace the incumbent supervisors. Traditionally, challengers don’t understand how government works. They champion their own goofy, impractical ideas. They don’t know how to campaign and tend to run poor races. It’s not good enough for a challenger to say, “The guy in there now stinks.” The challenger has to demonstrate he really is change for the better. And he should have connections, family and community ties and support. Most of all, the opponent needs wallet full of campaign money to beat an incumbent.

Are you satisfied with supervisor performance? Can county government do much better? Four years ago, I wrote that Adams County was a good place to live in spite of its leaders not because of its leaders. My perception has changed in those four years, as I have traveled much more (especially in Georgia) and live in both Natchez and Florida.

I now realize that many communities like Adams County in the small town South have witnessed a great economic expansion in the past four years or at least modest growth. We have not. We're plagued by job losses, population flight and a crime explosion. I'm not sure the supervisors are fully cognizant of these trends, as they tend to sing happy songs of progress that show little appreciation for the true reality our community faces. Supervisors are personally making money. Most have their public and private jobs. They're doing well. And their political comments reflect their improved economic standing. The rest of us aren't quite as prosperous.

Obviously, city politics have captured much of our attention in the last four years, because Mayor Grennell and his aldermen routinely break the law, act incompetently and sometimes corruptly. Our so-called 'bland and blind' supervisors look like angels in comparison. But are supervisors really doing the job or just haphazardly benefitting from our laser-like focus on the mishaps of city government?

If supervisors are supposed to combat economic and sociological decline in our community, do they have a plan of remedy for current conditions? Should supervisors be held responsible to some degree of the decline, or should they be given a pass and some absolution? Should voters keep the leaders they have or take a risk and elect some new ones?  

The answers to these questions will be determined by this year's elections. At this point, it's still too early in the election battles to know what the majority of voters believe or what the final outcome will be.

386 Liberty Road, Natchez. Ben and Bubba Wroten, owners. 24-hour towing, free insurance estimates, expert paint and body work at a fair price.

Rinaldi Report: Numbers Don't Lie But Politicans Do

The loss of jobs has led to a decline in population

by Peter Rinaldi

Natchez-Adams County employment statistics are readily available from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. The agency goes to great lengths to monitor employment activity in Mississippi's 82 counties.

The jobs trend line for Adams County has been heading down for more than a generation. The latest figures show 10,250 people employed, a drop of 80 jobs from a year ago, with the labor force shrinking slightly as well. Unemployment percentages remain so-so, now currently 6.5%, slightly lower than the norm. Comparing the current 10,250 jobs number to past figures is a bit depressing. In 2010, there were 11,160 jobs. In 2000, 13,600 people had employment.

Recently, the incumbent politicians and their allies sponsored a front page article in The Natchez Democrat, an attempt to inspire hope. The article said there were more than 50 good local jobs available, when in fact, there are always several hundred jobs, but just a modest few actually paying really good wages. Most of the jobs available in the market are unadvertised. The article relied on the county developer's figures to say that current local unemployment is 3.8%, when it is not. The jobless rate has never been that low. And it is now actually 6.6% for Adams County. (The lowest recent average annual AdamsCounty unemployment rate was 6.3% in 2007. In 2000, it was 6.5%. In most years, the average runs between 6.5%-10.9%, with great variances.

It's good to be positive, better to be truthful.

Those of us who have been watching the job recruitment game over several decades, know there have been great attempts to recruit major jobs and industry locally, most of which have failed. There have been a few exceptions, like Lady Luck and Magnolia Bluffs casinos and the CCA prison. You could also point to von Drehle as a step toward rebuilding. So maybe four big companies have been recruited in thirty years. (You could successfully argue that three out of the four were not recruited.) Fortunately, AdamsCounty benefits from Concordia Parish's economy and vice versa. Fruit of the Loom/Vidalia Apparel was a stable employer for years. It's gone now. The new Syrah will not employ that many people, but Vidalia Denim should. Whether Denim will actually reach the projected 300 employed is still an open question. Locals are used to hearing inflated employment projections and take such promises with a ton of salt.

For purposes of comparison, Concordia Parish has been averaging 7.0% unemployment in recent times. Norms run 6.4-10%. And the actual number of jobs shows a modest loss from 2010, when the parish averaged 6,750 persons working. This year, the parish has been showing an average of 6,300 jobs monthly. Even with conservative hiring, Vidalia Denim should be a significant factor in the number of employed. The picture appears to be slightly brighter for Vidalia and Concordia.

As this is an election year in Adams County, it's good to point out that supervisors purposely set themselves out as the champions of economic development years ago and remodeled the EDA into Natchez, Inc. for purposes of "saving the economy." Despite their efforts or non-efforts, the county has continued to decline in the last four years, a loss in population and a loss in jobs.

Voters know that Supervisors Butler, Lazarus, Gray and Hutchins are not up to the task of revitalizing the economy. The leaders lack the competency to do so. We should normally expect great things from David Carter, the smartest of the bunch. In plain fact, he's too busy running GreatRiver's auto, tractor and ATV complex to really much time on his supervisor job.

Whether old faces or new faces dominate the Board of Supervisors starting in January, we would be mistaken to assume the new supervisors can engineer some sort of miracle turn-around. History shows AdamsCounty elects leaders who get bogged down in the minutiae of running local government and don't have the vision or plans to change the community's direction. They deal necessarily with small picture items like the volunteer fire department, funding recreation or choosing a health insurance provider. They are at a loss as to how to do a turn-around, especially something as troublesome and complex as the local economy.

The key question when electing a supervisor remains, "Who is the best person for the job?" While many voters still will vote based on school ties, family connections, likeability, etc., the issue is whether the current supervisor is good enough or whether his or her challenger might be better in performance than the current occupant of the seat.

Sadly, the community has not successfully identified how to remedy the obvious current social and economic problems. Lacking a plan of action, little or nothing will be done to counter the prevailing trend of decline.

Right now, the picture looks like this. The incumbents will boast, fib and lie to keep their posts and say things are better than they are. The challengers haven't articulated any realistic plans at as yet. The rats (we common folks) will continue to flee the sinking ship. AdamsCounty's population figures from 2000-2019 document the sad tale: 2000 (34,340), 2010 (32,297), 2019 estimated (31,003). Delta-fication is not on the way anymore. It's here.

Rinaldi Report: Biting The Hand That Feeds You

Magnolia Bluffs Casino
contributes mightily to the local economy

by Peter Rinaldi

Are the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen smart, crafty or dumb? It seems like they can be all three depending on the occasion.

Recently, city hall decided it would apply political pressure to Magnolia Bluffs Casino, demanding an audit, even threatening a lawsuit. Of course, the casino is automatically audited by their own CPA group, has to provide a quarterly and annual audit to the state and its revenue figures are almost immediately available, since they are collected daily for the gaming tax. If the city wants to know what casino did in gaming, food and beverage last month, all it has to do is call the state and the figures are available. There are no surprises or hidden figures. There's no pot of gold buried under the parking lot.

It's strange that the city wants to apply pressure to its only real financial "angel," Magnolia Bluffs. Like the previous gambling enterprise, Lady Luck/Isle, Magnolia Bluffs keeps city government afloat and sends its payments on time or early. Aldermen were irritated that a recent payment from the casino was on time instead of delivered early as is custom. City leaders were confused. They didn't know the schedule of payments. They had forgotten the percentage of gaming tax. And they failed to explain how they "lost track" of $500,000 in casino contributions. The city knows it received the money. The mayor and aldermen just don't know how it was spent. Poof and it was gone. Somewhere.

I've often heard the anti-gambling crowd complain about the gaming activities at Magnolia Bluffs (as well as its casino predecessors). For many Christians, there is good reason to object to gambling on biblical principles. Outside of the religious views, we shouldn't overlook huge financial contribution the casino makes to the community.

Magnolia Bluffs pays the city $1 million annual rental for the Roth Hill site. That money goes directly into city's general fund. Add another 3.2% in gaming taxes, approximately $800,000, a city share of sales tax, 1.5% tax for the casino's food and beverage and city share of the bed tax at its hotel, 3% plus $2 per room per day.

Then there are more donations and contributions, part of the original lease agreement, and some just "helping out" donations: $1 million given for the YMCA, $300,000 for the Trails Project, $225,000 a year for five years for community development. The casino and hotel paid more than $630,000 in property taxes in the most recent year, the proceeds of which are shared by the city, county and public schools.

In all, millions of casino dollars each and every year help keep Natchez-Adams County government solvent.

If you had any doubt that Magnolia Bluffs helps keeps city hall and the entire community  financially healthier, then consider this. The casino currently has 290 employees, making one of the largest private employers in Natchez-AdamsCounty. Of the 290, 254 are full-time and 218 of those have 100% paid insurance. Of the total, 205 of the employees live in Natchez.

Magnolia Bluffs has paid out $485,000 in local contributions, sponsorships and promotional programs since opening. Another $1.1 million has been paid to Natchez vendors since opening. And it's total annual payroll tops $18.1 million, with total payroll since opening, $42.5 million.

Natchez-Adams County remains economically depressed because job opportunities are slight, good wages lacking and the labor force unskilled. Magnolia Bluffs can't save an entire community, but it certainly contributes in a major and positive way. And while the Eola is a separate project and corporation (with nearly the same owners as Magnolia Bluffs), it, too, when completed, will be another asset and good taxpayer for the community.

So when the casino asks the city for a small sign at its entrance on the top of Roth Hill or wants an expansion to its overly small parking lot, city fathers should be amenable and cooperative. The city should be thankful that the casino, the Magnolia Bluffs Hotel and soon the Eola are willing to invest such large sums of money in our town. Magnolia Bluffs made a bunch of grand promises before it arrived. It has kept them. It's paid early, often and probably too much, when you consider its extra donations.

City hall has a right to a copy of the casino's audit, if so specified in the lease. Good manners would also require the utterance of a simple, "Thank you."

Rinaldi Report: Why Revolution Is Necessary

One local government or two?

Americans chose independence for the colonies because the King's government, its colonial governors and legislators did not govern in the interests of the citizens as a whole. Today, Natchezians have a wider range of options to effect change. While were are not quite as revolutionary as our Founding Fathers, Natchezians, as a group, understand that local government isn't working well and that adverse societal and economic changes have only been aggravated by the foolishness of those in office.

Natchez attorney Paul Benoist and a wide circle of his friends and allies are leading an initiative that would change the way the community does business. OneBoard is a grassroots effort to enlist the support of voters and residents to do away with Natchez city government.

Natchez would remain as an entity, a community, but its government responsibilities would be "rolled" into the Adams County Board of Supervisors and AdamsCounty government as a whole. County government is required to exist as part of the state constitution. City government is optional.

The argument is that a series of Natchez mayors and aldermen has proved inept and incapable of running their own business. That seems like an easy argument to make. The political news has been full of such problems and mayhem over the years, most of its coming from city government.

Natchez-AdamsCounty is one community, with a small population of just 31,248. As the population has decreased in the past generation, there's seem to be little justification for two large governments, when one could do the job. Consolidation of law enforcement, fire, public works and other basic functions of government, would be appealing to many, especially if services improved and taxes could be lowered. Such a consolidation move could improve efficiency as well.

You saw how difficult it was for both the city and county to agree on a joint recreation plan. It took more than 10 years. One government might act more quickly.

Natchez remains in a crime crisis. Property crime is out of control. (The property crime rate in Mississippi is 27 property crimes per 1,000 residents per year. In Natchez, the property crime rate is 63 crimes per 1,000 residents per year, making it in the bottom 1% of safe communities in the nation.) Shootings are routine. Eighteen people have been shot and killed in Natchez-Adams the last 16 months, a horrible record. Perhaps it would be better to have just one law enforcement agency in charge of crime-fighting, the sheriff's department. There are many other good reasons for consolidation of revenues, expenses and services.

The volunteers at OneBoard have written a series of philosophical, legal and political statements that summarize their belief that one government is necessary for Natchez-AdamsCounty but two are not, and the city government should be allowed to go out of business. This measure would require the support of the supervisors, mayor and aldermen, as well as our legislative delegation. A bill allowing Natchez to end its rule would have to pass the Mississippi Legislature and be signed by the governor. To get all three groups on the same page would not be an easy task.

It's also hard to foresee the aldermen voting themselves out of a paycheck. For most politicians, their commitment, first and always, is to get re-elected, staying in office for terms to come. Secondly, the politicians think about what the community really needs.

But this small revolution starts with citizens saying 'We've had enough and we want change!'I would invite you to review the postings on OneBoardNatchezAdams.com. Benoist and his allies lay out their opinions on how the community should proceed for a better future. And whether you agree or disagree with the proposal, the material on the site makes compelling reading. The question is, "What is the best way for Natchez to move ahead?" OneBoard has an answer.

Rinaldi Report: New Math Resurfaces

The math behind the Natchez schools' building program doesn't add up

Two generations ago, some educators with extra time on their hands came up with novel ways to do basic multiplication and division. It was called "new math." Never more than a curiosity, finding alternative ways to do basic math seemed a bit peculiar and a waste of time, when the tried and true methods worked and were faster to perform.

The Natchez-Adams County School Board is on a mission. It has its own "new math" for citizens to absorb.

The Board decided to ram the building of a new high school past the community, when it failed to get the necessary votes for a tax levy-bond issue. Instead, the schools planned to build a new high school to serve 700-1200 students and do a fancy lease. Such a lease will increase the overall cost to taxpayers compared to regular bond financing.

The price tag would have been more than $42 million. The high school only has 630 students. So why build an over-grand facility, when something less would more than do? The schools came back and said they would now build a high school for just $22 million, which seems like an extraordinary cut in the cost.

The math appears suspicious. Yes, you can build a new, smaller high school for $40+ million. As a matter of fact, the median price for a new high school serving 1,000 students is $45 million, according to School Planning & Management's 20th Annual School Construction Report.

So perhaps our local school board plans to build a bare bones facility. They haven't given an indication of such. What is somewhat troubling is that the high school and the district report about 24% of their students are absent each day. That means approximately 151 of the 630 Natchez High students are absent each day. So when you're building a new high school, your actually service about 480 students on a daily basis. And the attendance figures do not include early dismissals, when a student attends class for three or four periods and then checks out, often unbeknownst to his or her parents. If the student attends for most of the day, he is considered in attendance for the full day.

The absenteeism rate in Natchez has fallen a bit, but not that much, just a percentage point or two per year.

There's been a bunch of chit-chat in the news recently about how the Natchez-Adams Schools are doing better with discipline, grades, test scores, etc. Some of this chatter is true. While our schools have increased performance very modestly, you should also look at how Natchez schools are doing in comparison to schools around the state. Many of those schools around the state are improving, too, but at a faster pace. Only NatchezEarlyCollegeAcademy is rated in the top half of similar schools across the state. Heralded McLaurin Elementary ranks in the bottom third. Robert Lewis, Suzie B. West, Frazier and Morgantown rank in the bottom 10-20% of similarly graded schools. Their performance is depressing and lackluster.

One the reasons given for building a new school was that such a new facility would encourage proper student behavior and improved academic performance. If that is the theory, then what is the maintenance and capital improvement program for the lesser performing elementary and middle schools, especially places like Morgantown? Morgantown Middle ranks 232 of the 252 similarly graded middle schools in the state. Do its students deserve similar attention to our high school students?

I liked the old days and old math when 3x4=12 and any number times 0 was still 0. It seems to many of us, that the Natchez School Board is playing a few political games with the numbers. They're building a new high school for a shrinking population and failing to voice a plan for renewal of the county's most troubled schools. It's like they're saying, "What's 3x4+6.?" They want you to answer 30, when the real answer is 18. (Rule: Do multiplication and division before addition and subtraction).

It's said that "figures don't lie," But often politicians use figures to mislead. School Board member Phillip West has turned this recent political fight over the schools into a race-baiting exercise. The point is: what's best for the kids with the limited resources we have. We know that 95% of the Natchez school population is black. But that's not material. We also know the success or failure of Natchez public school students is directly linked to the success or failure of our community. These students become working or non-working adults. depending on the outcome. It's not an issue of race, but one of money and allocation of resources to best purpose, what's best for the community.

In spite of the political fisticuffs over education, Superintendent Fred Butcher and his staff do deserve credit for a minimal improvement in performance scores. Maybe more is to come. We hope so.

But the superintendent and his school board have not articulated a vision in which Morgantown, West, Frazier and Lewis schools will receive similar academic or facilities attention. The philosophy appears to be to spend money and resources on the high school and its students, when a lot of those kids are already lost to societal dysfunction. Maybe more attention (and more money) needs to be allocated to the elementary school kids and their schools.

Teachers will tell you, by the time many of our kids have reached the fourth grade, they are already woefully behind, turned off, "lost in space."

You should question whether the Natchez-Adams Schools' program will be successful, a program that wants to rebuild from the top down instead of the bottom up. At this point, the school board's gamble is 'If we spend $22 million on a high school, it will lead to a renaissance, a renewal and transformation in education in Natchez-AdamsCounty.'

If it was that easy to create a renaissance, then almost every district in the nation would be building new schools. New schools will not create success. The data seems to indicate that a dual approach seems to work best. Intensive and special resources poured into low-performing schools. And "icing on the cake" attention for those schools already doing well.

At the core of success, it's the quality of instruction from teachers and teachers' assistants that make the biggest difference, along with appropriate administrative support. You cannot turn a system around by just plunking down $22 million for a high school or even $122 million.

That's old math as well as new math.

Rinaldi Report: Beyond Race

Voters should choose officeholders based on competence not race

by Peter Rinaldi

Six Natchezians, three white and three black, are in a rowboat, lost and far out to sea. They will die of thirst and hunger for sure, unless their situation improves. The six argue along racial lines how to save themselves and can't figure out how to either catch a fish or catch some rainwater that might happen their way. All of a sudden, a giant tuna jumps into their boat. They begin to argue over who is most deserving of how much of the fish and start yelling and punching each other. The tuna, realizing he may be eaten by this unruly crew, regains his senses, jumps back into the water and swims safely away. The six Natchezians continue their arguing, not even noticing that supper is no longer in the boat.

We are the community with a history of missed chances.

Regretfully, Natchez and its leaders have been fighting and arguing over race problems for nearly 60 years. And that fight has had a detrimental effect on the efforts of the community to improve economic development, especially in the post-industrial era.

Changes in political control are underway, as we have all witnessed. A dramatic demographic adjustment has taken place in the past generation. Natchez is now a majority black community, and so is AdamsCounty as a whole. That means many of the elected positions are now held by black officeholders. And a few more are likely to switch from white control to black control in this coming election or the next. It's inevitable. The black majority has increased in Natchez since the 2010 Census. In 2010, the feds said Natchez was 55% black. Today, it's around 62% black.

Today's majority black community faces the same challenge the white majority community faced 40 years back. It seems rather clear that local government has a history of ineptness and corruption. Lots of illegalities are covered up or excused. We have lousy government.

Most of us philosophically endorse the MLK phrasing of "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In practice, we're not quite there yet in Natchez. Closer but not there.

It would be nice to see our new black majority voters judge officeholders on the basis of competence versus color. But why expect that, when that's exactly the way white voters acted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We act the same. When it comes down to it, with a few exceptions, county voters this year and city voters next year will vote first based on color, then second on any qualifications, experience, competency or track record.

As Natchez-Adams County slips downward toward economic and social Delta-fication, our community will become more like Greenwood, Greenville and our closer neighbors, Fayette, Port Gibson and Woodville. Issues of race will become less important, as the local black majority edges toward 70%. Whites will have less political control, except in a slim group of wards or districts.

The new political environment echoes a return to old time Mississippi of the 1930s-1960s: boss politics. cronyism, stuffing relatives into every public job, gross mismanagement, the way whites used to run the state. Only this time, it's blacks running the show. We're always so hung on whites do this and blacks do that, when there's plenty of evidence to show that citizens are abused by their governments, no matter who is in charge.

Sadly, our populace is so poorly educated that it cannot make good decisions about who should be elected. And when officeholders are elected, they're so poorly educated themselves, they cannot make good decisions about policy, practice and their multi-million dollar government budgets.

It appears at times that nearly all of Natchez is lost at sea, waiting for a miracle tuna to jump in the boat, like the parable previously told. Something or someone should save us, because we cannot do it ourselves. Such is the fallacy of our thinking.

In Natchez-Adams, we often elect the self-serving and the ill-educated. Why should we expect our officials to behave well or administer government professionally? When something is not working (and our local government is not working), you have to change what you're doing. Otherwise, you will continue to get the same miserable result.

Race shouldn't be the issue when voting. But competence most certainly should be. 

Rinaldi Report: Murderer Gets "A Good Deal"

A key to the safety of the community is appropriate sentencing for those who have committed serious felonies

by Peter Rinaldi

When sentencing a felon two weeks ago, newly elected Circuit Court Judge Debra Blackwell casually announced, "Your lawyers got a really good deal for you." The defendant pled down from first-degree murder to manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years with credit for time served. He has been in jail since April 2016. With good behavior, he could be out in five to seven years.

Is the judge supposed to provide editorial comment as such? Certainly, it's her prerogative. Why does the killer deserve a good deal? The defendant shot and killed an unarmed man following a domestic dispute. Blackwell could have rejected the plea deal and forced the D.A. to go to trial. A first-degree murder conviction requires a life sentence. A second-degree murder conviction also requires a life sentence. However, if the jury finds the person guilty of second-degree and does not hand down the sentence, the judge is supposed to sentence the murderer to 20-40 years.

Citizens are hopeful that Blackwell will be a conservative influence on the bench, giving appropriate sentences for serious felonies. With Natchez's outbreak of shootings and break-ins, citizens want protection from their judges, meaning those convicted should do lengthy sentences. Keep the bad guys off the streets.

Unfortunately, the senior circuit judge, Lillie Blackmon Sanders, has earned a reputation for her "catch and release" sentences, coddling criminals, including repeat felons. We don't need two judges who act this way. Blackwell's comment may have been just a slip of the tongue. We hope so, because we expect more from Debra than we've gotten from Lillie.

Rinaldi Report: Vidalia CPA Audit

Vidalia's latest audit shows government accounting practices have improved

by Peter Rinaldi

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has reviewed and released a copy of the Silas Simmons CPA audit for Vidalia for the budget year ending June 30, 2018. The adverse findings include the town did not carefully track its sales tax revenues and transfers from the sales tax fund to other funds. Expenditures from the fund exceeded revenues by 29%. State law allows plus or minus 5%. Additionally, the Town Marshal does not have enough employees to properly separate administrative and financial duties, since it is such a small office. It's expected that city hall accounting staff will provide additional help in this area. A town official should be on the Marshal's bank statement and receive a copy of it. Purchase orders should be used for the Marshal.

There are no other exceptions or "needs to improve" mentioned in the report, showing the town has done a good job of managing its money and handling its accounting. The exceptions are relatively minor compared to the previous administration, which characteristically would have 20 or more major faults or illegalities mentioned in its audits.

The audit shows the town's finances and bookkeeping practices comply with state law and show prudence and care in the management of funds. Spending on police, fire and public works appears within reasonable limits (police $2.4 million, fire $1.5 million, public works $1.1 million). Town government remains extremely dependent on hydro revenues for its economic survival, since property taxes are the lowest of any city in the region, and sales tax collections are puny.

There's nothing here for the critics to chomp on. Only the handling of the sales tax revenue fund needs correction. The state also suggested more training for city hall employees in their accounting duties and the mayor and aldermen have agreed to do so. This is probably the best audit for Vidalia in more than a decade.

It's nice to see Mayor Buz Craft and his aldermen making such dramatic strides in financial management. The previous administration was a total mess in this regard and illegalities abounded. Those problems have been rectified.

Rinaldi Report: Battling Crime In Natchez

Natchez police tactics must change

by Peter Rinaldi

Miss-Lou citizens should support law enforcement. Cops and deputies are an important part of our community and a major part of our defense against criminals and predators.

It's not an easy job to be a good law enforcement officer. The risks are great and the pay modest. And the danger to officers just on traffic stops and answering domestic violence calls should make most of us pause and consider how risky those jobs really are. Go to YouTube for evidence and you'll see traffic stops and police calls gone wrong. Officers end up being shot at just for doing their duty.

The bad guys are well-armed, mostly with stolen guns.

In Natchez's continuing gun violence, city police recently responded to a call at Cambridge Heights Apartments, where one young man was shot in the leg and the windows of a Nissan Altima were shot out. The body of the car was peppered with bullet holes.

During the police investigation of the crime scene, an unfortunate event occurred. A Natchez police officer decided to interview a woman on the scene by taking a cell phone video of her. The woman did not really want to participate, as she had not actually seen anything. She was inside her apartment when the shooting occurred. Her children ran inside as the "pop-pop" of guns was heard. She gathered her kids around her, and they all laid down on the floor, in hopes they would not get shot.

Noticing her reluctance to be videoed, the officer then threatened to put her in handcuffs and take her to the police station if she did not comply. The woman did comply, stood there and told the officer where she was and where her kids were when the shooting happened. All this was captured on cell phone video by another person and posted on Facebook.

Police do have the right to ask a person's name and request ID for any legit reason. The courts have said that. But officers should not threaten to arrest or detain if a subject does not wish to answer questions. Yes, the police officer can legally detain that witness for questioning, including taking her or him to the station. But this particular officer's bullying was not professional. He could have asked her the same questions without video and without threat. The witness feared for herself and her children if the thugs came back and found out she had voluntarily talked with police. In this case, she was compelled.

Police Chief Walter Armstrong said later he saw nothing wrong with the tactics used by the officer. But in the era of community policing, it is a strange way to build support from citizens by threatening to put a non-offender in handcuffs.

If the officer wanted good information from a potential witness, then both he and the witness should have moved inside, where the entire neighborhood would not see or hear the questioning. The woman would feel more secure sitting down in her living room or at the kitchen table out of the public view. The officer would more likely get better information. Even if the woman did not know anything about this particular incident, she could be asked, "Who is causing trouble in the neighborhood? Who is dealing drugs? Who is driving around with guns? Who are the thugs on Watts Avenue? Let me know if I can help you, if you have a problem, if you feel threatened. I'm here for you." Building a rapport with the woman is a better method of investigation.

So the officer got his cell phone video, which had the name and address of the lady and her kids' names, but that's all he got. Do you think she will be calling the police with a tip about criminals in the future? Hardly. Her last conversation with a cop consisted of the officer threatening to put her in handcuffs and take her to the station. She won't be calling in any tips.

It's incidents like these that reinforce the general belief in our community that the sheriff's office is better than the police department and the police department is generally woeful. This is a view that has been reinforced over the years. I've received dozens of calls in more than 30 years about police not acting professionally or not acting properly but very few calls about sheriff's deputies acting improperly. Some of these confrontations may be have the fault of the citizens and not the officers, of course.

It makes you wonder whether the proposal to fold the police department into the sheriff's office still has merit. Currently, deputies cannot legally do radar enforcement, but city police officers can do this task. With the exception of a city radar patrol, maybe we shouldn't have a police department. The population has declined more than 25% since its height. Maybe one department is more efficient.

Recently, sheriff's deputies have been offering extra assistance to the Natchez Police Department, including running more patrols in the city limits, since NPD is so short-staffed. This has included searching for violent offenders, including shooters.

Since the mayor and aldermen are unwilling to fund the police department properly, it's time for the city to think about giving that responsibility to the sheriff's office. Additionally, the long-standing policy of police responding and investigating in the city and the deputies responding and investigating only in the county should be abandoned. It limits effectiveness.

There would probably be little or no cost savings from merging the departments, as right now the violent crime and property crime threat is so great, that we probably need to spend more money on law enforcement, putting a tactical unit on the street to find and arrest the gang-bangers. We need computerized mapping of both felony and misdemeanor crimes and allocating of resources to the highest crime areas, an anti-shoplifting team, roadblocks every week, a better system of informants and undercover officers not just for drugs but for gang crime. Plus, you're going to need better quality officers, That can only happen with more money, better recruiting and better training. This is an expensive proposition and takes time.

But if we don't act and don't try remedies, then the problem will get worse. I wrote about this as long as 10 years ago and the powers-that-be responded by saying I was overstating. I was lying. Crime was not that bad. Even the aldermen said in open meeting that crime in Natchez was just like other towns. Natchez is good.

No, Natchez's public safety was and is awful. The latest stats say Natchez is more dangerous than a year ago, now in the bottom 1% of safe communities, meaning 99% of U.S. communities are safer than Natchez.

Neighborhoodscout.com uses FBI, Department of Justice and local statistics to track violent and property crime across the country. It concludes, "For Natchez, we found that the violent crime rate is one of the highest in the nation, across communities of all sizes (both large and small." The rates of violent and property crime in Natchez are more than double the rates of crime in Mississippi as a whole.

With 13 murders in 13 months in our city, the way we police has to change. Once warmer weather returns, more criminals will be out on the streets shooting each other and/or stealing, and citizens will be more at risk than now.

The mayor, aldermen and police chief seem unwilling or unable to adapt. The Grennell administration has continued the policies and practices of before, more of the same. So we will get more of the same, more shootings and killings, more break-ins, more thefts, more crime, more disintegration of Natchez society,

Since the current leaders appear unable to respond to the crime outbreaks of recent years, voters should come to the obvious conclusion. A new crew of officials should be chosen who will take on crime and public safety as their top priority.

In the meantime, if the current bunch value their perches in office, they should try at least one remedy, something versus nothing. So far, the mayor's response to all the shootings was to hold a prayer meeting and get on the radio, which of course, was and will be completely ineffective in battling seasoned criminals who want to steal and kill.

City leaders have difficulty prioritizing. They want to do a Depot rental, build a monument to civil rights heroes, fix the Triangle and downtown. But battling crime gets lip service only, no action. Grennell doesn't seem to know what to do, and neither do his fellows on the Natchez Board of Aldermen. They are the proverbial deer in the headlights.

If you think it's just the criminals that are killing each other, you're in error. We've already had victims murdered that were innocent of any wrongdoing. Remember Shakerria King? She was just 17-years-old and standing innocently on a street corner talking with friends this past summer. The drive-by thugs shot and killed her.

Are city leaders just uncaring, too lazy or not competent enough to battle crime? We're not sure. Maybe they're more worried about how big the letters of their names will be on the Parchman Ordeal monument. Maybe it's easier to campaign for re-election than to solve a major crime problem.

Monuments are priorities. Public safety is not. That's the way it is now. But it doesn't have to be that way. A community fights crime with specific action, strength not weakness. We don't need weakness at the top, especially now.

Rinaldi Report: City Hurts Its Citizens

by Peter Rinaldi

As you may remember, more than 50 Natchez residents (styled as appellants Rene Adams et. al.) have joined to together and filed a lawsuit in Adams County Circuit Court, arguing that the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen acted illegally when it gave the General Hospital property to Magnolia Medical Foundation for development of senior citizen apartments. The group is suing the city (mayor and aldermen) as well as Magnolia Medical.

For purposes of record, you should know the brave citizens that have taken on the task of fighting city hall. They include: Rene Adams, Robert Adams, Byron Aldridge, Linda Bailey, Tom Bailey, Paul Benoist, Raymond Bonnette, Larry Buckley, Barbara Colwell, Bill Dale, Cammie Dale, Mary de Benedetto, Amanda Eidt, Jacob Eidt, Jacqueline Biggs-Eidt,  Kate Ferguson, Kaylin Frederickson, Sarah Freeman, Vicki Fowlkes, Ed Gaudet, Tom Geoghegan, Bridget Green, Carolyn Guido, Gary Guido, Stephen Guido, Lorraine Hampton, Richard Hess, Edward Killelea, Jerold Krouse, Cindy Meng, Cheryl Petermann, John Petermann, Maureen Radzewicz, Dorothy Ranier, Matthew Riggins, Fred St. Clair, Helena St. Clair, Jim Sanders, Tamara Scales, Josiah William Seibert III, Martha Seibert, Stella Sharp, Elizabeth Swalm, Fran Trappey, James Wade and Tabitha Wroten. This group has put up their own money to fight the good fight, trying to force the city to act legally and responsibly.

The city allegedly did not follow its own "Request For Proposal rules." Magnolia Medical's proposal was accepted after the timeline for such acceptance had already passed. Magnolia Medical did not submit a certified check of deposit for $5,000 as required. The proposal was supposed to include a business plan and a detailed financial plan. None was submitted and no resources for development were documented. Magnolia Medical asserted in its proposal, that its commitment was not binding, if it could not secure funding or the cooperation of the local community. No commitment of funding was included and so far, the local input from local residents has been negative. Therefore, by its own language, Magnolia Medical's application should be rejected by the city and the court as well.

Additionally, the city's deadlines for the RFP do no match those advertised in the public notice. When the issue was brought up for a vote in the aldermen's meeting, it had not been put on the agenda and lacked proper notice to the public. The transfer of the property is not actually a sale under the city's RFP, but rather an illegal gift or donation from the city taxpayers to a private organization, an act prohibited by law.

The resident group has put forward a compelling argument that the RFP was handled improperly and illegally. The city did not handle its RFP under its own stated terms and the sale was actually a gift and therefore illegal. As such, appellants make a good case that the city's award to Magnolia Medical should be overturned and rescinded by the circuit court.

City hall has also taken the absurd position that it is better to argue this matter out in court, earning City Attorney Bob Latham huge fees to supplement his income, even though our leaders know they acted illegally. It's a win-win for Mr. Latham, whose filings, counter-filings, hearings, settlement talks, appeals, etc., will be funded by the taxpayer.

Latham counter-argued that the appellant group could legally appeal the city's decision to award a contract, because the actual terms of the contract had not been settled as yet. The city said none of the appellants had submitted a proposal for development or have the ability to say they've been discriminated or disadvantaged by the working out of an agreement with Magnolia Medical. Latham said the circuit court should dismiss the case against the city because of these conditions. He argued that the appellants do not have "standing" and therefore their suit should be thrown out.

Filing to counter the motion for dismissal, the appellant group cited Mississippi cases with similar circumstances, including one in which the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that neighbors of the Natchez Pecan Factory could file suit and object to a transfer of the property, since what happened to the factory affected their lives, their properties and the well-being of their neighborhood.

Judge Al Johnson ruled for the appellants, denying Latham's request for dismissal. The judge said that clearly the citizen group does have standing upon which to file its case. The aldermen voted to accept Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis' motion to give Magnolia Medicals the contract and the property. Johnson said it was not a motion to negotiate further but a firm business decision.

Latham tried the phony-baloney pitch and failed. The city cannot win its case on merit since it has none.

Mayor Grennell and the Board of Aldermen prefer to award a financially unqualified minority company an illegal contract and spend tens of thousands of your tax dollars on a series of unjustifiable legal claims to help ole Bob. The method is crafty and unethical, based on a false premise, that Magnolia Medical followed the RFP and that city government did, too.

Anyone who tells you the Cousin Darryl and his allies on the Board are sincerely interested in the welfare of Natchezians and the future of the city should read carefully the public documents filed with the circuit clerk on this case. The pages reveal the same style of political intrigue used in the revamping of the city's waste contract, which when exposed, showed a dark and sinister side to city hall politics. Those machinations also cost ratepayers more than a 30% increase in garbage fees.

This administration tries to surround itself in an atmosphere of kind words, prayers, harmony speeches and an "all-working-together-philosophy" that is often undercut by a trail of subterfuge and falsehoods. It has a distinctly sneaky and underhanded way to maneuvers. Witness the myriad and unjustified firings and disciplinary actions taken against city personnel. This is just more of the same.

In a time of our present crisis (the crime outbreak), the mayor and aldermen seem unlikely to lead us out of messes. They will instead create more. You cannot get good and capable leadership from people who lack a sound moral base, persons who don't exhibit ethics or embrace legality. They move from failure to failure

It's often said that voters only have the lesser of evils to choose from when electing officeholders. Perhaps it's actually that evil of lessers that plagues us. You can argue both sides or many sides of an argument, but discussing policy or practice with leaders who are basically not honest is a waste of time and money. So the legal fight is on.

Natchez remains in peril.

Rinaldi Report: Robust Democracy

Mayor Buz Craft's policies are often under attack

by Peter Rinaldi

With the new Buz Craft reform administration fully in charge, changing the way Vidalia's government runs, voters and taxpayers have benefitted. Nearly all dealings are open and above board, submitted to the aldermen for discussion, rather than just the normal rubber-stamping that occurred in the Copeland days. So far, Sabrina Dore, Tron McCoy and Tommy Probst appear to have formed the Anti-Buz Coalition, aldermen willing to challenge almost every move of the mayor and his staff.

This has its rewards, too, as the debates have been wide open, allowing voters to really know what's going on behind the scenes. Such debates have also revealed some of the foolishness of the opposing actors, whose intellectual skills are not quite what they should be to make a coherent and credible stand. Sometimes the fights show the aldermen opponents as unnecessarily confrontational and without a knowledge of the facts.

These wranglings have brought Mayor Craft and the other aldermen to exasperation and anger at times, pushing the mayor to speak or act in haste. No matter whose side you're on, it's good to see these arguments flare. Such is real democracy in action, something Vidalia residents haven't had for awhile.

Despite the fireworks, it's important to remind everyone on the Vidalia political stage that the city appears to be heading in the right direction. This is the result of the work of Mayor Craft, administrator Bill Murray and all the aldermen, both the loyalists and the opponents. Budgeting is more careful and lawful. Bookkeeping is more accurate and issues not hidden. Personnel are required to be accountable. Some cost savings have been made, the issue of utility costs and revenues examined. And the town has moved forward with Syrah and Vidalia Denim, potential plusses for the entire Miss-Lou. How the new broadband-internet center and Vidalia Port fit in the mix is still uncertain. These initiatives, started by the Mayor Hyram Copeland and his allies on the former board, may result in advancement or just more expense. The Craft administration remains committed to the projects.

Right now, most voters and taxpayers should like what they see in Vidalia city government. Progress is being made. And democracy is working.

Rinaldi Report: Top Stories Of 2018

Riverland Medical Center should start construction on its new hospital in the Spring

by Peter Rinaldi

This has been a curious year for news stories in the Miss-Lou, a time when the contrast between Natchez-Adams County and Vidalia-Concordia Parish is more apparent than usual. The communities are separated by a bridge of just 4,202 feet, but the way they have operated this year shows they are miles and miles apart in the quality of leadership.

Let's talk about the good news for Vidalia and Concordia Parish. Now that Riverland Medical Center has its financing in place for the new hospital, construction should begin this coming spring. The impact of the new hospital will be more than you might think. Expect hospital revenues to rise to more than $25 million a year in just a few years. That means a massive improvement in services and technology, a larger payroll and a positive impact on the life of the parish and the entire Miss-Lou. This is a long-term commitment by the parish police jurors and the hospital board members, a complete readjustment of medical care in the parish for this generation and the next. Special commendation should be given to Jim Graves, Billy Rucker and Sam Ellard for their work on this important project.

Public and private hospitals can be the centers of their communities, just like Merit is in Natchez (and like Regional and Community used to be). A solid healthcare system usually provides the highest-paying jobs in a small community.

The good economic news continued with the signings of Vidalia Denim for the old Fruit-of-the-Loom plant and Syrah Resources for LAEL site. Mayor Buz Craft led a team effort to push the companies to locate here.

Both signings have generated some controversy. Vidalia Denim's chief entrepreneur has had some difficulty executing his business plans in the past. But with a major bank-investor package behind the company, Vidalia Denim should get underway. Additionally, Vidalia taxpayers have been and will be paid well for the sale of the building and future taxes, plus the sale of utility services to the new industry.

Syrah Resources will be taking over the former rubber recycler's location, retooling the plant to help generate spherical graphite for electric car batteries. This project has also been controversial, because some of our local environmentalists have gone overboard and apoplectic worrying about water and air discharges, uranium content, etc.

Unfortunately, many of the local opponents to Syrah don't know what they're talking about when it comes to mining, graphite or industrial production. The plant must be permitted by both the state and the feds and meet safety, clean water and clean air regulations that are detailed and specific. If you research Syrah, based in Australia, you'll find this mining company has a good track record economically and is a good citizen. Syrah's planned location here is a beneficial outcome for Vidalia. Whether the company can make a profit in fabrication manufacturing is a separate issue.

And while the talk has been so positive about 300 jobs or more from the two plants, don't hold your breath on the numbers. Companies often overstate the number of jobs that will be created. We will know in a year or two whether the rosy estimates are true or a bit of fibbing.

For Natchez, it's been a troubled year. The mayor and board of aldermen completely mishandled the waste contract issue, going into secret session, violating the public meetings law and then delivering a contract to ratepayers that increased rates by about 30%. The waste contract was handled so poorly that many citizens thought the mayor, city attorney and aldermen acted both ineptly and corruptly. Whether you measure the politicians' intent or not, the public relations aspect was a disaster. City leaders started off by forgetting they had a waste contract to renew and then things got worse from there. It was a disaster to remember, a total mess-up.

The hapless goings-on raised the issue of Mayor's Grennell's administrative competence, as did the way he handled the firing of his assistant, Temple Hendricks, and the forced retirement of the fire chief, Aaron Wesley. Both terminations made citizens question the mayor's communication, public relations and leadership skills, which seemed to desert him when he needed them greatly. The frequent changeover of staff at city hall hasn't helped either. Being mayor of Natchez tends to expose a person's character in a way that AdamsCounty government does not. A mayor is more under the spotlight than a supervisor. Perhaps Darryl is the great leader. Perhaps not.

Obviously, the top story of the year is Natchez's crime wave. We've all lost count, but there have been nine murders this year and several dozen shootings, which included the wounding of many people. Not only are gang murders and shootings the new style of the town, but break-ins and property crimes continue almost unabated. According to FBI and U.S. Department of Justice statistics, Natchez ranks in the bottom 4% of safe communities. That means that 96% of cities in the U.S. are safer than Natchez.

See the website neighborhoodscout.com for more information. The percentages relate to occurrence of crime in numbers per thousands of residents. Obviously, a city like Chicago has more actual killings, shootings and property crimes than Natchez. But the rate of crime is a true measure of the community's safety. For example, Chicago is in the bottom 8% of safe cities, which means, by occurrence per thousand residents, Natchez is less safe than Chicago.

This is not a new phenomenon for our city. The rate of crime has been increasing through the Jake Middleton and Butch Brown administrations. City leaders saw fit to retire two police chiefs since those days. But protection from criminals in our city appears to be sketchy at best.

Not all the crime is drug-related, though most is so. We have a new class of professional killers and gang-bangers ready to do battle. Take a look at the Natchez gangsters' YouTube videos. They tell all. Many of the victims are not fellow criminals. Many are innocent persons mowed down in error or persons whose sin was to have a verbal argument or confrontation with the shooter. Armed and unarmed robberies have also increased, as have break-ins to cars, homes and businesses.

What's surprising is how Natchez leaders have not risen to the occasion to fight this crime wave. This year, the city did give its cops a minor raise but deleted two positions to fund the budget burp. That's all city hall has done. Shockingly, alderman and former cop Billie Joe Frazier said he wasn't going to take any responsibility as alderman for the crime wave. At an aldermen's meeting, he said the fault lies with parents who did not raise their kids right.

Surely, some parents are responsible for poor parenting. But many of the shooters and break-in artists are actually in their 20s and 30s. How long are you supposed to be responsible for your criminal kid?

It is also the city's responsibility to provide for public safety, including police (and fire) protection. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the mayor, the aldermen and Billy Joe to improve public safety when it is lacking. It would be hard to be critical of the city leaders if they had tried some initiatives to curb crime and then failed. At least, citizens could say they tried. But so far, the Grennell administration has done little or nothing to counter the crime wave.

I would suggest a change in tactical policing could be one response and adoption of "the broken windows theory" of crime fighting is needed. See wikipedia.com for an explanation of how this theory affects the practice of policing.

You can't make the changes necessary for public safety without money. A generation ago, Natchez committed to expanding its governmental focus beyond police, fire, streets, seniors center, water works, etc. The amount committed to tourism and convention center development was increased by more than 700% over the years and exceeds the amount spent on the police department and police protection.

Tourism and conventions were seen as the rising tide to lift the economic boat. That did not happen, of course, because the money spent on those enterprises could not counteract the outflow of residents and economic decline caused by the loss of IP-Fidelity and industrial jobs.

The city, when it did have extra money, used it for overall payroll increases, health insurance costs and some pet political projects, like the pool. But the police department was left to languish. City-county leaders took some solace in the fact that while the police department wasn't that great, the sheriff's office was pretty good. So city policing took a back-burner priority.

We can see what happened as a result. Not only does the open warfare in town cost lives, it damages the community's reputation. Almost every shooting and killing is reported to the Associated Press. It's not just a local story. The message is Natchez is a dangerous place. And the message is accurate and not overstated. Right now, fighting crime is a lot more important that Depot contracts, waste hauling, statues or downtown development schemes. Do city leaders see that?

With all deference due to Mayor Grennell for his group harmony and Kumbaya speeches, crime is ruining this town. And it's up to the mayor, aldermen and police chief to remedy the problem now. This is their primary task, their top priority. And what they attempt to do should be communicated to the public.

We should ask the question why crime happens less often in rural Adams County, outside of the city limits than inside. What is it that Sheriffs Patten, Mayfield, Brown and Ferrell did that made their departments more successful than the city PD in keeping us safe?

I would suggest the city's style and tactics of law enforcement needs to change. We should demand a plan and expect results or get new officeholders who will actually attempt to stem the tide of violent and property crime.

In future commentaries both in print and online, I'll discuss what should be done tactically. In the meantime, Grennell and his cohorts at city hall need to come up with their own plan.

Rinaldi Report: Natchez's Sensitivity to History

by Peter Rinaldi

America has found a new sensitivity toward history, which includes removing statues of Confederate generals and altering state flags that include Confederate symbols. You can understand why black people don't like those symbols, a stark reminder of oppression. And you can also understand why many whites see those symbols as part of their proud heritage. Regardless of how you feel, America is changing and politically correct revisionism is in full swing, urged on by a media frenzy that encourages ill feelings.

How much of this change reflects the overall opinions of the general population is uncertain. Waves of revisionist history are common in America. This latest wave is not confined to the annals of professional historians but has captured media attention because of America's current divisions along political and racial lines.

Whether this is just a momentary news blurb or a trend makes a difference for Natchez. Because Natchez's history is all wrapped up in pre-Civil War mansions, mansions which were built and maintained by black slaves. The cotton wealth created by whites in the 1830s-1850s was built on the backs of black slaves.

It's worth mentioning as well that white tycoons with large amounts of capital and an ability to borrow large sums were needed as well. Despite the capital and the slaves, many plantation owners failed to make a profit and lost fortunes, including those who sallied into the indigo, tobacco, cotton and timber businesses in Mississippi in the 1800s. Slavery was not a guarantee of prosperity for the entrepreneur. The actual historical picture is complex and incudes many factors.

Will tourists still want to see the old homes, greeted by women in fluffy dresses and petticoats? Will the Natchez Tableaux be able to sell tickets, even with its new more-modern approach to history?  The Tableaux isn't doing too well now, even before this latest swing in current history. Just how far will this historical revisionism hurt us?

If it becomes unfashionable to see "Old Natchez," then that trend could bring an economic disaster to an area already hard-pressed by a generation of factory closings.

Tourism hasn't been too healthy anyway, because Natchez is competing with many other communities in the South that have ramped up their efforts to win tourists and their travel dollars.

It's a fact that Magnolia Bluffs Casino receives more tourists and travelers on a daily basis than all the mansions do in Natchez, outside of Spring and Fall Pilgrimage tour times. Visitor tastes are changing.

What happens to a town when its tourism business is based on a history that has some unpleasant foundations and is no longer considered mainstream? Will tourists be afraid to buy tickets to the old mansions fearing they might be seen as racists?

The next few years will tell.

Right now the CVB has new and good leadership, both in its governing board and Jennifer Ogden as director. There's some talent in that organization, though many of its employees are still "sitters" versus "doers." NPT has taken the position it will do most of its promotion online. It has cut back and cut back in recent years and the results are showing.

To the good, Natchez's mansions are in better shape today than ever. The new generation of homeowners has spruced up, painted, redecorated and expanded their services to include bed and breakfast, special events as well as touring. Some of these owners have literally spent millions of dollars on their properties. The product they sell to tourists is better than ever.

But will the new interpretation of history make it difficult for Natchez to attract tourists? This is a question whose answer is still shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. But the eventual answer, one way or another, will have a dramatic impact on Natchez's economic future.

Rinaldi Report: Tale of Two Cities and Their Unionization

The IP Natchez Mill in its heyday. Today the factory is completely gone and the acreage has returned to an overgrown, wooded state

by Peter Rinaldi

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times. It became the worst of times."

Nissan workers in Canton just rejected a bid by the U.A.W. to unionize by a 60-40 margin.

The union-management struggles in Canton reminded me of what happened to Natchez in the 1980s to early 2000s. The conflict put segments of the Canton area community against each other. Fortunately,the union loss means 3,500+ Nissan employees still have their high-paying jobs and the community keeps growing.

For Natchez, the outcome was different.

Natchez-Adams County had benefited from its post-WWII industrialization. Several thousand new jobs came with prospering new industries. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s changes were occurring that were dramatic. As union shop wages and benefits escalated and workers enjoyed better lives, the factories' profit margins ebbed. Struggles with unions constantly creating production snafus and expensive inefficiencies. Management and labor were always at each other's throats --- not a happy environment from which to make money.

In the 1980s, Diamond International, a union shop, said it was losing money and must have a more pro-company contract to survive. It did not get the contract. The company closed forever, laying off 350+ workers. More than 25 years later, Mississippi River Corporation finally opened there with a small staff but couldn't make it and the paper recycler folded. The remains were bought by von Drehle from North Carolina, who reinvested heavily in the plant. But employment is a shadow of what it once was, about 75 workers.

Armstrong Tire, a haven for the pro-union faithful, kept losing money, in part because of its antiquated three-story factory and also because of its punitive union contract. The company sold to a start-up, Fidelity Tire, which could not make a profit at the factory. Then Fidelity sold to Titan Tire. When Local No. 303 objected to Titan Tire president Morry Taylor's changes at the factory, relations soured. The Local, with the support of its national organization, walked out, leading to a two-year confrontation between Taylor and the national union. The workers never went back. Taylor tried to make tires with a new labor force, but the factory closed due to mounting losses. Titan Tire remains closed to this day.

International Paper Company in Natchez at one time employed more than 1400 workers, paying some of the highest wages in the area. Many workers made more than $50,000 a year. Five unions were established at the plant and starting in the 1990s, the plant had difficulty making a profit.  Foreign competitors started making some of IP's products at a cheaper selling price. Those products were generally cheaper in quality, too. IP's massive payroll and byzantine labor rules made the plant inefficient and eventually unprofitable. IP went to it unions asking for relief. But union organizers believed management was lying about the change in the bottom line.

The plant started laying off people, both union and contract labor help. When Lenzing, a European competitor of IP in the fiber business, agreed to buy the Natchez plant, it said wages and benefits would have to be cut 10% or the company would not make the purchase. The unions did not believe the plant would ever close. And when workers rejected the IP-Lenzing plea for reduced compensation and benefits, Lenzing walked from the deal and IP closed the plant in Jan. 2003, laying off the remaining 590 workers.

The mill never reopened.

IP could not sell the plant and eventually Rentech of California said it would open a synthetic fuels plant there. But that never happened and Rentech sold the property for $9 million to the Adams County Supervisors, who have let the property decay. Neatly trimmed, grassy fields have 20-foot tall trees in them now. Old paved parking lots are now grown up with trees and brush. All the buildings are gone. One small factory has moved there, a tire recycler. Delta Energy promised 91 employees to the community. And most of the time had less than 20. Castleton Commodities recently purchased the plant and its 30 acres, promising to bring 50 employees in time. The rest of the IP property sits vacant.

Natchez-Adams County never recovered from its industrial closings. The county's population, which was 38,035 in 1980 dropped to 31,248 in 2016. Canton and Madison County saw population rise from 41,600 to 105,000 in the same period. Canton and Madison County's growth are also related to outflow from Jackson, access to the interstate, more progressive government, lower taxes, a stronger regional economy among other factors.

While there are many other components that played into the Natchez-Adams County closures, unionization played a strong role in the economic demise of the plants and the rapid downturn in our economy, the results of which have not been remedied to this day.

A worse ending to the story of Natchez couldn't have been forecast when Diamond International first notified the community it was having trouble making ends meet.

Canton's success story and Natchez's story of failure are both remarkable. One story has a happy ending or at least a happy beginning. The other story is almost too sad to recount.

Miss-Lou Magazine, 4835 Bonita Beach Road, Unit 505, Bonita Springs, FL 34134, 601-431-2990, missloumagazine@peoplepc.com.