City footing security bill for center

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 30, 2000

After two years of lobbying, the City of Natchez convinced the Legislature to pay for security at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center – only to find out the state doesn’t have the money.

Passed in early June, the amendment to allow the Mississippi Department of Transportation to contract security for the visitor center went into effect July 1. But, when Tourism Director Walter Tipton contacted MDOT officials, he was turned down for lack of funding.

MDOT contracts security for the state’s welcome centers from a discretionary fund, but the Natchez center was unique because it was located on city property.

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&uot;The believed they would be using state money to protect city property,&uot; Tipton explained.

The recent bill changed that and Tipton began contacting MDOT&160;officials to set up contracted security. Funding for welcome center security comes from a discretionary fund, and there is no money left over for Natchez, Tipton said he was told.

Donna Lum, MDOT public affairs director, said Natchez is not the only welcome center being denied funds this year.

&uot;We’re reluctant to do that (contract security at Natchez) because we’re strapped for funds ourselves,&uot; she said. &uot;The bottom line is there wasn’t enough money to keep the ones open that we wanted to keep open.&uot;

In looking at which centers would receive state-funded security, Lum said MDOT chose those located on the more heavily-trafficked four-lane highways. Lum added that MDOT&160;did not traditionally maintain welcome centers not located on state property.

Since MDOT pays security for the other state welcome centers, it should be no different for Natchez, Tipton said.

&uot;It’s discriminatory in that respect,&uot; he said, adding the city and the tourism department values its relationship with MDOT.

&uot;It’s sort of like a marriage,&uot; he said. &uot;There may be something you don’t like about your partner, but it’s not something you’re going to divorce over.&uot;

The National Park Service rangers stationed at the visitor center double as daytime security, Tipton said, but the city has also provided contracted security for after hours.

Currently, the tourism department pays $27,000 a year for the after-hours security. Tipton said he has arranged for the security to remain at the visitor center on a month-to-month basis in the hope of acquiring outside funds.

&uot;There will be no lapse in security at this time,&uot; Tipton said.

Like MDOT, the center’s security comes out of a discretionary fund. Expecting state funding, Tipton said he had already budgeted without factoring in for security costs.

After-hours security is important to the visitor center because many travelers use the 24-hour restrooms and parking lot, he said.

While there have been no serious problems with safety, Tipton compared security services to insurance.

&uot;The fact that we haven’t had any problems might be because of security,&uot; he said.

Tipton said he has not given up on the possibility of MDOT contracting security in the future, but until then he is advertising for bids for security.

The security contract with the visitor center will include a cancellation clause allowing the contract to be terminated with 30 days notice in the event a more affordable service or outside funding becomes available.