Meridian Star

Local News

January 16, 2014

Take away for both sides in bond issue hearing

MERIDIAN —     Legal wrangling over the county's controversial $14 million bond issue for recreation projects and courthouse renovations continued Wednesday in Lauderdale County Chancery Court.

    After hearing arguments, Judge Lawrence Primeaux declined to change a previous order which gave the go-ahead for the county to issue the first of a series of bonds to fund the projects. Chancery judges are tasked with conducting bond validation hearings, where they decide whether a county or city has gone through the necessary legal steps.

    Primeaux ruled in favor of the county in October, but the objectors filed an appeal, which will go to the Mississippi Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals.

    Stephen Wilson, the attorney representing those objecting to the bond issue, asked the judge to consider amending his previous order to keep the county from using $3.5 million of the original bond issue to fund the West Lauderdale Youth Association project.

    Because the $14 million bond issue is being held up in court, county supervisors in November passed a separate bond issue for $3.5 million to fund the West Lauderdale project, saying at the time that they would not add it to the original bond issue.

    However, a group of citizens conducted a successful petition drive calling for an election on the second bond issue. When the results were in, supervisors decided to drop the second bond issue. That means if the original bond issue is upheld in the higher court, the West Lauderdale project would be funded through that avenue, as would the other projects.

    Wilson asked Judge Primeaux to change his ruling on the original bond issue to state that if the original bond issue is upheld by the high court, the $3.5 million for the West Lauderdale project should be excluded.

    "A significant number of signatures came into this project to require an election," Wilson said. "The board in its discretion decided not to move forward. The fact remains than more than 2,000 people in this county have signed a petition calling for an election on this one specific project."

    Tommie Cardin, an attorney with Butler Snow, represents the county in this matter. He argued that the second bond issue was completely separate from the original. He said Primeaux's original order should stand.

    "As long as the Board of Supervisors chooses to spend this money within the parameters of the bond issue, it is lawful and legal, and they are able to do it. Here, what the board decided to do is proceed forward with a separate and distinct bond issue, specifically for this project," Cardin said. "There was a separate intent resolution that started the process from day one just as we did the original process. When the signatures were received, given to the clerk, and the clerk validated that there were more than 1,500 signatures, therefore the board was going to have to call an election, the board decided not to do anything. The board decided not to call an election and the project was dead."

    Primeaux agreed and ruled against the motion to stop the Board of Supervisors from continuing with the funding for the West Lauderdale project in the original bond issue.

    On another matter, however, Primeaux upheld a previous ruling in favor of the objectors. At issue was whether the objectors to the bond issue should be required to put up a $90,000 bond that would protect the county from any losses incurred by delays in selling the bonds.

    Cardin argued that the objectors should have to post a bond because the county has experienced damages and will have more damages in the future.

    Primeaux expressed doubts about requiring such a bond of the objectors.

    "Let me get this — I want to understand the county's position," Primeaux said. "The county is saying that if citizens feel that the process has reached the point that it needs judicial review, then those citizens should be willing to put up their homes, their savings, their retirement, everything else to indemnify the county for all these attorneys fees, all these other expenses that it incurs in the bond issue process."

    Cardin disagreed.

    "No, your honor, it is not," Cardin said, "because the way the court phrased it, the court phrased it that the objectors would have to give up their house, their savings and everything else. They would not have to do that. They would have to come up with the money for a reasonable bond to secure the damages that the other taxpayers in the county will incur as a result of the delay that is taking place by not being able to close on the bond issue."

    Primeaux said citizens would likely never object if they had so much financial risk at stake.

    "It's significant enough, your honor, that the taxpayer would know that going in and have some source of funding to be able to post that security," Cardin said.

    Primeaux said his ruling may be overturned on appeal, but he was not going to require taxpayers to post a bond when it could be such a financial burden. In his response to Cardin, whose law firm is in Ridgeland, he made his intentions clear.

    "Apparently you don't live in Lauderdale County. People here just don't have that kind of money. The fact is, that for a citizen to stake all their wealth on trying to hold the government accountable is a laughable proposition," Primeaux said. "I find that the motion should be overruled. If the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals, in its review, believes that citizens should have to put that much at stake merely to ask for judicial review of the actions of a Board of Supervisors, then so be it. That will be the law.

    "I think the chilling affect of citizens being able to hold the government accountable and to ask for someone else to look at the actions of the government, separate and apart from the government itself, I think that's a right that needs to be preserved."

    It will ultimately be up to the Court of Appeals or the Mississippi Supreme Court, he said.

     "I can tell you that there aren't many citizens of average means in Lauderdale County,  Mississippi who would be willing to stake everything they own to exert those rights. I just don't see it," Primeaux said. "I just question what kind of democracy we live in. But that's my position. Your motion is overruled."

    Following the hearing, Wilson said the attorneys will submit an order to the judge for approval before the appeal can move forward.

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