Millions earmarked for W. County Line Rd.By ANTHONY WARREN,
Jackson could be getting $6 million to help with the North State Street and West County Line Road reconstruction projects.
The city’s one-percent oversight commission recently approved the allocation, but with two caveats.
Jackson would receive the money in installments over the next three years. Also, the city would only receive the funding pending an answer from the Mississippi Ethics Commission as to whether the board could vote on the funding, citing one oversight commissioner’s potential conflict of interest.
At the heart of the matter is whether the commission could award funding for the West County Line Road project while Beverly Hogan serves as a member.
Hogan is the president of Tougaloo College. The West County Line work would directly benefit Tougaloo and its students, according to Commissioner Pete Perry.
However, it was unclear whether Hogan herself would benefit. And when asked, Perry did not know how or if she would personally.
“The question is does Dr. Hogan have a pecuniary interest in Tougaloo having several hundred acres opened to development,” Perry said.
Perry argued Hogan shouldn’t vote because Tougaloo would benefit economically with the realignment of West County Line, and threatened to walk out of the meeting if Hogan did not recuse herself.
Had Perry walked out, the commission no longer would have had a quorum, and no action could’ve been taken.
The board voted to approve the $6 million on a 4-1-1 vote. Voting in favor were Commission Vice Chair Duane O’Neill and commissioners Michael Boerner, Carrie Johnson and Robert Blane. Perry voted against it, while Hogan abstained.
Under state statute, six of the board’s 10 members must be present for a quorum.
Hogan couldn’t be reached by phone or e-mail. At the meeting, she voiced her support for the project, saying it would improve transportation for students traveling to and from the campus.
Tougaloo is located at 500 West County Line. The historically black college serves approximately 840 students, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Commissioner Ted Duckworth, who was absent from last week’s meeting, said Hogan should have been allowed to vote.
Duckworth, who helped develop the District at Eastover on Eastover Drive, arguably could have benefited from that street’s recent repaving. The city recently directed APAC-Mississippi to overlay Eastover as part of its neighborhood street repaving program.
The program, which is funded with one-percent dollars, was put in place to target the city’s worst residential streets.
However, the section of Eastover repaved is home to a number of state agencies, as well as the District, a $150 million mixed-use development, and is arguably not a residential street.
Duckworth said that by design, commissioners will have conflicts with nearly every project approved, and that if Perry used his own logic, he should not be allowed to vote for projects in Belhaven, because Perry lives in that neighborhood.
“Legislation required each commissioner to be a resident of the city of Jackson, to allow Jackson residents and business leaders to represent their respective communities,” he said. “(There are) conflicts for every one of us.”
The County Line and North State projects are being funded in large part with a $19.5 million TIGER Grant.
According to a copy of the city’s grant application, the West County Line realignment would specifically benefit Tougaloo College and the surrounding community, which is predominantly African-American.
The city received the grant in 2015. TIGER stands for “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.” The grants are to be used on projects not only designed to improve transportation but to enhance economic development.
“Tougaloo was identified as the reason for it (the West County Line work), because it would enhance the value of the property,” Perry said.
The project calls for realigning West County Line Road to intersect with East County Line, a major commercial corridor. Also, a new underpass would be constructed for vehicles to cross under the railroad tracks.
Right now, West County Line connects to North State south of East County Line. Vehicles must cross a railroad track to turn onto or off of the street.
In addition to improving transportation, the project would open up “hundreds of acres” of Tougaloo property for new development, Perry said.
Perry forced Hogan’s abstention after reading about what he said was a similar incident in Madison County.
The Madison County Board of Supervisors recently asked the county attorney to draft a letter to state and local law enforcement officials and the Mississippi Ethics Commission to look into MCEDA’s hiring of Warnock and Associates, a Madison County engineering firm, to conduct an airport feasibility study.
MCEDA is the Madison County Economic Development Authority. The organization brought on Warnock to conduct the study years ago. When the contract was awarded, Calvin Harris, an employee of Warnock, was on the MCEDA board. However, he recused himself from the vote.
The $1.2 million study would have determined whether or not the county needed a new airport and included the evaluation of a number of potential sites.
According to House Bill 1874, which created the authority, MCEDA “shall not contract with any person who is related to a member of the authority within the third degree or who is the spouse of a member of the authority, nor shall the authority contract with a business entity of which a member of the authority is an officer, director, owner, partner or employee.”
In 2006, the ethics commission opined in an unrelated case that a member of a planning and development district board “may not be employed by a civil engineering firm which contracts with the planning and development district.”
The North State project will cost about $19.6 million by itself, and will include reconstructing the roadway from Hartfield Street to Sheppard Road.