Harris claims racial disparity in use of county funds to repair roads

Published 12:50 pm Thursday, August 2, 2018

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By Fred Guarino

The Lowndes Signal

Over the objection of County Commissioner Robert Harris, the abstention of Commissioner Joshua Simmons, as well as a claim of racial disparity in the spending of funds on road repair by Harris, the Lowndes County Commission voted Monday to borrow $485,000 to repair Juliantown Road and Mary Jane Jackson Road with a USDA loan that will cost the county about $59,427 per year for 10 years.

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At the center of the controversy was the amount to be spent on each road using the $485,000 loan.

The amounts ultimately approved to be funded by the loan are $426,468.95 for Juliantown Road and $61,201.88 for Mary Jane Jackson Road for an actual total of $487.670.82, which leaves a difference of 2,670.82.

Harris challenged the division of money to be spent on Juliantown Road with about 14 homes of what he described as white families and Mary Jane Jackson Road with about 50 homes of black residents.

He said he could live with a split of $285,000 going to Juliantown Road and $200,000 to Mary Jane Jackson Road.

Harris claimed that comparing all five district in the county, “District 1 (which he represents) has got less amount of money funded to their district.”

Following the meeting he raised these questions, “Now, is that fair across the board that the districts are not being done right, the money is not being spread out right when it is everybody’s money? Are we selecting? And does it mean that you’ve got 14 houses over on Julian Town Road with nothing but white folks on it versus the black folks on Mary Jane Jackson Road? Does it look like there is an issue there?”

Also, following the meeting, Commission Chairman Carnell McAlpine took issue with Harris’ claim of racial disparity regarding Juliantown Road and Mary Jane Jackson road repair amounts. He said the repair to both roads, which will be made using stone material, includes about eight miles of Juliantown Road and about three miles of Mary Jane Jackson Road.

McAlpine said, “So, naturally, the eight-mile road will cost more.” He told the Signal, “So, you can’t just plug numbers and split money. You have to spend money based on the cost of doing the road.” He stressed, “Race had nothing to do with it.”

McAlpine said Harris’ suggested division of the money, $285,000 for Juliantown Road and $200,000 for Mary Jane Jackson Road would leave  part of Juliantown Road “unrepaired.”

District 4 County Commissioner Joseph Barganier said during the meeting that Juliantown Road should have been done 15 to 20 years ago. He also said, it is in such bad shape that the current road has to be ground up to be repaired. But Harris countered that Mary Jane Jackson Road has a higher volume of traffic.

McAlpine also said after the meeting that Juliantown Road is in bad shape. He said the numbers show that Mary Jane Jackson Road will take less money to repair than Juliantown Road, but he if there is enough money to do both roads, both roads should be done. He stressed, “It’s not based on race. It’s based on what you do to the road.”

Harris told the Signal that his District 1 had $2.9 million dollars spent on it While District 4, represented by Joseph Barganier, had $5.7 million spent on it.

And while Harris provided the Signal with numbers spent in the county’s five districts on roadwork since 2008, the numbers he cited included funds for roads that won’t be spent until 2019. They also show entire costs for work on certain roads being counted in the totals for more than one district.

The amount Harris showed spent on Lowndes County Road 45 of $1,136,179.71 was included in its entirety in both the totals he showed  for money spent in District 3 and 4. There were also entire cost amounts duplicated for Lowndes County Road 17 in both Districts 1 and 2 and Lowndes County Roads 37,32 and 26 in both Districts 4 and 5.

According to information provided by County Commission Administrator Jackie Thomas, the annual payment on the $485,000 to be spent on Juliantown Road and Mary Jane Jackson Road is based on an interest rate of 3.875 percent.

Prior to the vote on the borrowing of funds to do Juliantown Road and Mary Jane Jackson Road, a motion by Harris to amend the split of the funds failed with only Commissioner Joshua Simmons and Harris voting in favor.

Also prior to that vote Harris asked if blacks were worth less than whites? He also claimed Commissioner Dickson Farrior could not vote because he has property on Juliantown road, has a son that lives on the road and that Farrior does business there.

County Attorney Hank Sanders said, however, there is no conflict of interest when it comes to a vote on a public road.

Farrior, Barganier and McAlpine then voted in favor to cut off debate on the matter.

The motion to borrow the money to fix the two roads with the $426,000 plus for Juliantown and the $61,000 plus for Mary Jane Jackson Road passed with Barganier, Farrior and McAlpine in favor, Harris opposed and Simmons abstained.

The meeting was adjourned following that vote while Harris attempted to address commission concerns.

In other matters, the commission  learned Monday that it has been approved for a Rural Business Development Grant of $37,959 by USDA to resurface a community parking lot behind the Charles Smith Sr. Courthouse Annex building where the commission meets and to pave a parking lot beside the Family Guidance Center, both in Hayneville.

That grant was applied for by former Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris West.

Lowndes County Engineer David Butts reported that a goetech study will be done and traffic count is being made on Lowndes County Road 40 to determine weight limits.

Butts  reported he hopesto have three tractors back in service cutting right-of-way by the end of the week.

Butts said plans for roadwork on Lowndes County Road 6 are at the state. He said he hopes to have plans for Lowndes County Road 17 culvert ready in five or six weeks.  And he said, “I hope you guys realize it will be 2019 before we get to County Road 37.” However, said it is hoped that work can begin on Lowndes County Road 32 by the end of the year.

Under the consent agenda, the commission unanimously approved an appropriation from Simmons to the Edgewood Tutorial Plus program of $1,000, an appropriation to the Calhoun Volunteer Fire Department from Simmons in the amount of $9,000, an appropriation to the Sandy Ridge Volunteer Fire Department from Barganier in the amount of $8,500.

The next commission meeting will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 14.