County, city play by different rules on drainage work

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 29, 2001

Beverly Gremillion has watched her backyard slowly disappear since she moved to Brooklyn Subdivision last summer.

Her home on Magnolia Avenue sits next to a bayou created by tributaries of St.Catherine Creek.

But that bayou is creeping closer with each rainfall, and a newly-formed sinkhole has Gremillion worried.

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Following heavy rains last weekend, a large sinkhole appeared between Gremillion’s house and the steep edge of the bayou.

By Monday, the hole had nearly doubled in size and Gremillion, concerned about the structural safety of her house as well as that of neighborhood children and pets, called the Adams County Road Department.

But because the sinkhole is located on private property, Gremillion said, she was told no help was available.

Now Gremillion wonders why she hears of the city paying to correct erosion on private property while the county refuses.

&uot;What I want to know is, I pay my taxes. Why can’t we get help in the county?&uot; she said.

Russell Dorris, county road manager, said the difference lies in the way the two local governments are set up.

Counties are political subdivisions created by the state Constitution and are only permitted to tax residents for – and provide them with – services laid out by the state.

As long as the erosion was not caused by and does not inhibit county projects, the county cannot legally fund work on private property, he said.

County crews can only protect the public properties, not improve the private ones, Dorris said.

Supervisor President Sammy Cauthen knows personally why Adams County cannot work on private property.

Several years ago, supervisors had to pay for drainage work behind a local church out of their own pockets because the state auditor’s office ruled the work was done on private property.

Because water coming off the roof and the parking lot of the church was causing the drainage problem and not the public road, the auditor decided that project was a misuse of public money, Cauthen said.

&uot;That’s why I’m real leery about doing any kind of work any where on private property,&uot; Cauthen said.

So the county does not participate in an Emergency Watershed Protection program (EWP) through the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to fix backyards for private landowners.

When erosion or flooding takes place, the EWP can fund repairs to public property such as roads, streets, buildings, culverts and public utilities.

To participate a local government requests assistance, funds 25 percent of the project, executes easements and agree to conduct long-term maintenance of the project.

Bryan Stringer, district conservationist field officer in Adams County for NRCS, said his agency looks at any site cities and counties ask them to examine, even if they eventually decide not to go through with the project.

EWP is primarily for public property, which makes up about 65 percent of its projects, Stringer said.

The City of Natchez is able to do more EWP projects because it takes the position that roads and culverts are so much closer to houses within its limits, Stringer said. In other words, work on private property allows the city to protect its own property.

But in the past six to seven years, Adams County has taken part in these projects on a regular basis on public property but not on private property, Stringer said. The problem arises when private landowners receive the false impression that the program can work for them, Stringer said.

Ben T.J. Hammond Jr., 100&160;Coral Ave., attended a supervisors meeting this month to complain about a &uot;breakdown in communication&uot; with EWP. During the past year, Hammond has spoken several times with supervisors about damage to his backyard and its eligibility as an EWP project.

Hammond said the need for the work has reached a dangerous level.

&uot;We need it done pretty soon now. We’re getting rain,&uot; Hammond said. &uot;If you go out there and look I’m fixing to lose a house.&uot;

Supervisors told Hammond they could not do the work because it is on private land.

&uot;We cannot get on private property that is not county right-of-way,&uot;&160;said Supervisor Lynwood Easterling.

Supervisor Thomas &uot;Boo&uot; Campbell said the board has to be careful when deciding which projects it can pursue.

&uot;If it’s not a clear choice, we can’t do it,&uot; he said.

And Supervisor Virginia Salmon said she thinks the public needs to know upfront the board’s position on the matter.

&uot;I feel it’s unjust in giving false hope for any of the board to suggest these problems on private propety be submitted for review because we know we cannot expend public money on private property,&uot; Salmon said.

Easterling said he is concerned that constituents believe the supervisors do not care about erosion.

&uot;The board of supervisors are really concerned about the washes behind houses, including my house,&uot; he said. &uot;But we can only do legally what the auditors and what the state will allow us to do.&uot;

Supervisors voted this month to mail a letter to the local office of the NRCS explaining their position.

Even if a resident agrees to pay the 25 percent match themselves, Adams County still cannot participate in the program, Cauthen said.

The money would have to first go through county funds making it public. The county would also be bound under the terms of the EWP to perform preventive maintenance on the work, Cauthen said.

Not only is that expensive it would require Adams County to do additional work on private property,

On the other hand, cities can participate in the EWP because they were created by residents, not by the state, and have the ability to tax themselves for whatever services they want to provide for themselves.

&uot;They have more latitude on the taxes they collect because they voluntarily impose them on themselves,&uot; Dorris said.

Even if the county could perform work on Gremillion’s property, or any of the other county residents’ his office recieves complaints from, &uot;I don’t know where the money would come from, because the erosion problem in this area is in the billions (of dollars),&uot; he said.

&uot;It’s very frustrating, both for me and for the property owner,&uot; Dorris said.

Cauthen agrees with Dorris on the issue of cost. If Adams County began working on erosion problems in everybody’s backyards &uot;the county would be bankrupt the first year.&uot; Cauthen said.

The county can, however, dump dirt removed during county projects on private property as long as the owner agrees, Dorris said.

Crews often do this to help residents with their erosion problems while saving the county money in hauling costs.

Dorris said he has visited Gremillion’s property several times and has determined her erosion problem is not caused by runoff from the county road.

But the explanation cannot help Gremillion, who said she cannot afford to fix the sinkhole without some assistance.

A few months ago, her neighbor Ruth Lem also had a sinkhole form a few feet from her mobile home.

After trying quick fixes and seeking out help from the county and the Soil Conservation Service, the more than $2,000 cost of correcting the erosion fell to Lem.

&uot;They’ve got lots of sympathy, but no money,&uot; Lem said of the county officials she spoke with.