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New environmental court packed with cases before it starts

NATCHEZ — With 700 cases backlogged on the docket, the staff of the city’s recently established environmental court staff is going to have their work cut out for them.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said after Tuesday’s Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting the city is working to get the court up and running by next month. The court will hear violations for nuisance properties, abandoned vehicles, littering and similar offenses.

Carby said he did not know how 700 cases had backed up in municipal court.

“It certainly did not happen overnight,” he said.

The board of aldermen approved salaries for environmental court judge Tony Heidelberg and prosecutor Shameca Collins at the meeting.

Heidelberg will be paid $2,500 a month, and Collins will be paid $500 month.

The city has been looking at ways to prosecute litter violation cases faster, and the mayor and board of aldermen concluded that the court was the best solution.

Carby said the court is going to try to work through 50 cases each month.

“We anticipate that we will have a positive cash flow very quickly,” he said. “The idea is that the court will pay for itself, and there will be a net increase.”

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields said he wants to see that money be put toward contracting clean-up work for dilapidated properties.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway said he met Monday with Mayor Butch Brown, and it was agreed that the money would go into a separate account to contract clean-up work, such as grass cutting.

“It’s not going to get lost or shuffled (around),” Brown said.

Fields said he also wants Natchez Public Works’ budget to be reimbursed with court funds for the money and labor the department has used to clean up derelict lots.

The court will meet from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the first and third Mondays each month in the municipal courtroom at the Natchez Police Department.

Carby said with back log of cases, the court staff will have plenty to do and asked the public to be patient as the city gets the court up and running.

In other news from the meeting:

-The board approved amending its grass-cutting contract with Jeffery Ross Industrial Services at the request of City Engineer David Gardner.

In an effort to keep the grass cut more efficiently in several areas in the city, Gardner said he wanted to change payment from a fee per cutting to a monthly fee. Gardner also wanted to add some additional areas to be cut to the contract.

The objective, Gardner said, was to cut the grass when it is needed rather than to be locked into a certain number of cuttings. Last year’s contract, he said, was for 10 cuttings.

Cutting the grass before it gets too high, Gardner said, would also result in less wear and tear on the contractor’s equipment.

The monthly fee of $3,300 a month would result in a $39,600 annual contract cost, Gardner said. If the city increased its cuttings to 18, which was Gardner’s recommended number, and paid its current price of $2,700 per cutting, the annual cost would be $48,600.

Brown pointed out that the city gets $10,000 for the corridor cuttings from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Brown said he is attempting to get more funding from MDOT for the cuttings.

The board also approved adding the former pecan factory site and the nature trail on the bluff to another contract with Jeffery Ross Industrial Services.

-The mayor asked Public Works Supervisor Justin Dollar and Gardner during the board’s finance session to work out a plan to take up the concrete and clean up the former pecan factory site on the bluff.

“I would like to see us go ahead and groom that place and get that tacky fence down … and get it mowable and made into a good green space,” Brown said.

Dollar said the problem last year with cutting the site was that there is so much concrete on it. He said with a trackhoe and a bulldozer, public works could possibly get the job done in a week.

Brown said he would call the county for inmate labor to help, if public works needed it.

-Ward 2 Alderman Ricky Gray expressed concern about the potential rezoning of three contiguous lots in the vicinity of 91 Kelly Ave. from industrial to mixed density residential.

Residents in the area have voice concerned about the rezoning because they believe a chemical spill contaminated the area years ago.

Gray said he would like an environmental assessment from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for the site to ensure its safe.

City Planner Frankie Legaux presented information to the aldermen at a work session Monday from MDEQ that indicated that the site would be safe to rezone. Gray was not at that meeting.

Legaux told aldermen that MDEQ closed two monitoring wells it had on the north side of Kelly Avenue closest to the lot. The wells served to monitor if any contamination filtered out into the groundwater.

“It looks like with the closing of the well, DEQ doesn’t feel there is any reason to monitor the wells,” she said. “If they did, they would still have the wells,” she said.

-The board took under advisement several bids for annual general supplies, including concrete, mosquito control products and several other items.

-The board awarded the contract for carpet at the Natchez Convention Center for $41,926 to J&J Carpet of Vidalia. The New Orleans Hotel Consultants company, which manages the city-owned center, will pay for the carpet, Brown said.

-The board met in executive session for approximately 50 minutes to discuss “economic development” with Natchez Transit Director Sabrena Bartley.

-The board recognized WTYJ as the business of the month for March.

-Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said a public meeting set for 5:30 p.m. on March 28 will allow residents to voice problems they have had with Cable ONE service, channel availability, service hours or other issues.

“This is your time to come and openly speak your mind,” she said.

The city and the county are currently conducting individual audits of their franchise agreement with Cable ONE to ensure the company has properly paid them over the course of the agreements.

The audit is in preparation for negotiations to renew the franchise agreements for both the city and the county.

The board will meet at noon Friday at the Natchez Convention Center to discuss the convention center lease with New Orleans Hotel Consultants.