By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
The dedication and opening of Highland Community Hospital, which represents a $60 million investment, was chosen the No. 1 story for 2012 for Picayune and Pearl River County by the editors and reporters of the Picayune Item and Poplarville Democrat.
The new hospital, which has already produced major changes in the way healthcare is delivered in Picayune, Pearl River County and southwest Mississippi, has already had a large economic impact on the area, and is the economic engine that is currently driving the local economy, say city and county officials.
The hospital ribbon cutting was conducted on July 8, and on July 28, the move from the old Highland location on Goodyear Boulevard to the new facility was completed. The move from the old facility to the brand spanking new facility just off U.S. 11 North in northeast Picayune was complete: All functions, services and patients were transferred to the new facility.
Highland officials touted the grand opening of the new, state-of-the art facility as a reason to "now stay home for health care."
“Residents now have a reason to stay home for healthcare,” said Mark Stockstill, Highland Community administrator who spoke to about 1,000 attending the ribbon cutting and grand tour of the facility on July 8.
He praised the dedication of employees and healthcare officials with Forrest Health Systems, which also owns Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, for “catching and holding the vision” that eventually turned into the new facility. He also praised the Carle Cooper family for donating the land and Roy Anderson Co., which built the facility, and city and county officials.
The new hospital was credited with not only a tremendous economic boost to the area, but also changing the very layout and configuration of northern Picayune with ancillary healthcare facilities coming on-line, the new doctors complex and a combined residential-commercial section planned by developers along the four-lane thoroughfare, Highland Commons Parkway, which when completed, will cause major changes in traffic patterns in North Picayune.
Other stories and their rank, chosen by Item and Democrat editorial staff were:
No. 2, the county budget crisis; No. 3, Hurricane Isaac; No. 4, the addition of the new annex to the old City Hall and movement of city government back to its historic original location; No. 5, Pearl River County's drug epidemic; No. 6, the continued innovations by the Pearl River County Utility Authority and the resignation of its board president, Steve Lawler; No. 7, the occupation in February, although 10 months late, of a new office complex at Millard for DHS and the Justice Court System; No. 8, the completion of the Beech Street project, which refurbished a large portion of West Picayune; No. 9, the prisoner fee and emergency dispatching issues between the City of Poplarville and Pearl River County; and No. 10, the resignation of PRCC Wildcat Head Coach Tim Hatten.
No. 2, the county budget crisis. At its June regular meeting county administrator Adrain Lumpkin, Jr., told supervisors that if the county remained on its current spending projection that there was a possibility that the county would run out of money before reaching the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 31. Supervisor board President J. Patrick Lee vowed “this county will not go bankrupt,” and the board took drastic actions. It clamped a furlough on county employees, began cutting back on county appropriations, and froze purchase orders. Eventually, the crisis eased but some agencies got hurt, especially the library and the Area Council on Aging, which threatened to cut out senior meals if its funding was not brought up-to-date. By Sept. 30, supervisors had restored some funding to the library and caught up on its Senior contribution, but it faced problems with putting together a 2012-13 budget. It eventually raised millage rates between 3 and 4 mills to close a budget deficit caused by a decrease in tax revenue when property values fell, thus producing less revenue. As the year closed, supervisors were increasing efforts to attract more industry to shore up a tax base and were trying to watch more closely monthly budget expenditures. It’s worth remembering that during the crisis, car dealer Dub Herring wrote an $8,750 check to the county to pay for the last quarter installment of county funding to the Picayune animal shelter, which supervisors had cut.
No. 3, Hurricane Isaac. The slow moving Isaac stalled when it came ashore Tuesday, Aug. 28, near Houma, La., and took three days to move out northward into Arkansas. But during that three days it dumped torrential rains on Pearl River County, which was in the storm’s northeast quadrant. The winds were not high, but the rains brought extensive flooding throughout the East and West Hobolochitto creeks, Wolf River and along Pearl River. Over the Aug. 28 to Aug. 30 period, 24 inches of rainfall were recorded on a Picayune rain gauge, a record. Record flood stages were in some cases exceeded and in others reached previous record levels along the major streams that drain Northern and Southern Pearl River County. For the first time I-59 was closed when flood waters from Wolf River rose over the major interstate. Approximately 100 homes were flooded in Pearl River County, and by December cleanup operations had come to an end.
No. 4, the new annex to the old City Hall. Picayune sold its current City Hall on Beech Street to Huey Stockstill and began preparations for moving back into the historic old City Hall on Goodyear Boulevard, and most of 2012 was spent adding a 20,000 sq. ft. addition onto the old City Hall. It is just about complete and ready for dedication and occupation. The addition costs $1.8 million and will be paid for when finished. No additional taxes were levied to pay for it.
No. 5, Pearl River County’s drug epidemic. In an interview with the Item, Sheriff David Allison described Pearl River County’s drug problem as near epidemic proportions, despite his department’s efforts to put a dent in the problem. However, he said he felt it would be worse if his department had not been trying to curb it. The problem was then out in the open. He said, in candid remarks, that the county was not going to arrest its way out of the problem, that the county needed a concern and effort by all citizens, and maybe even a religious revival, to come out of the problem. Over 1000 persons marched in a demonstration, to Jack Read Park, showing their solidarity in wanting to do something about the drug problem here, which stems mainly from prescription drugs prescribed by doctors. Then coroner Derek Turnage released information, showing that 17 persons had died from drug overdoses in PRC since January, and at year’s end, tests on another victim were being run to see if he was the 18th victim. Hundreds have suffered drug overdoses but did not die, officials said.
No. 6, the continued innovations by the Pearl River County Utility Authority. Although the PRCUA has received its share of criticism, two things happened during 2012 that showed the area might owe it some leeway. Steve Lawler, its president since its inception in 2006, resigned, and PRCUA supporters pointed out that under his leadership, $80 million in federal funding was spent here upgrading the county’s utility infrastructure. That’s $80 million taxpayers would have had to come up with if PRCUA had not been a conduit for the federal funding. Also, pointed out was that two new waste disposal plants, valued at a total cost of $20 million, were dedicated and came on-line during 2012, under Lawler’s leadership. When PRCUA took over, Picayune was under a court order to revamp its system and Poplarville couldn’t build anymore structures because of problems with its water system. Those problems are now solved.
No. 7, the occupation, in February, although 10 months late, of the new DHS office building at Millard. The structure, which cost approximately $2.5 million and was built with FEMA funding, will house most DHS offices, but also has space for the Justice Court System, allowing the JP offices to move out of trailers it has occupied since Katrina.
No. 8, the completion of the Beech Street refurbishing project. After almost half-million dollars in federal funding was pumped into the Beech Street project in West Picayune, a whole section of the city of Picayune got a brand new look. One-and-a-half miles of Beech Street was paved and striped and a whole new sidewalk system was installed and upgraded. The section now not only looks better but can help relieve traffic pressure on downtown. Motorists can use Beech Street from Liberty road south to Holcomb’s Crossing to avoid downtown congestion during rush hours.
No. 9, the prisoner housing and dispatching issue between the City of Poplarville and the county. The City of Poplarville was not paying for housing city prisoners at the county jail, but that changed when the county forced the city to pay a per diem charge of $20 to house its prisoners at the Millard prison. Poplarville at first refused to pay the fee, saying city residents already paid county taxes, but an AG opinion said the county could charge the city. But when the sheriff tried to make Poplarville pay $85,000 a year for two dispatchers, the Poplarville board of aldermen set up their own local dispatch service, which will take effect at midnight Dec. 31, and maintained that 911 service through the county should continue since residents pay a $1 per month service fee for 911 service on their telephone bills. Aldermen said this week that after midnight on Dec. 31, Poplarville residents should call 601-795-4447 for nonemergency situations and still dial 911 for emergencies. The cost of setting up the new service: $17,000 a year.
No. 10, in sports, PRCC head coach Tim Hatten resigned at the end of the season. On Dec. 14, the PRCC board named Coach William Jones, defensive coordinator for East Mississippi Community College and a former Wildcat defensive coordinator under Hatten, as new PRCC head football coach.