Plant manager turns focus to task at hand

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2001

Dave Fines is pleased, if not enthusiastic. &uot;Obviously, I’m very glad that the aldermen approved the tax exemption,&uot; said the manager of Titan Tire’s Natchez plant. &uot;It was the right thing to do for this community.&uot;

But it was far from the easiest thing to do.

Titan Tire of Natchez had requested a second tax exemption on some $1.9 million worth of equipment – an exemption that would save the company roughly $57,000 in annual taxes – along with the renewal of the plant’s existing $13 million tax exemption in January.

But the request – coming amid rumors which preceded the confirmation that the plant would scale back its production and workforce by nearly two-thirds – quickly became a political issue.

As the Natchez aldermen and mayor stalled on the issue, politics took hold and old divisions reared their familiar heads. Some aldermen questioned the need to grant the exemption, demanding a full accounting of plans and intentions from Titan leaders. Members of the United Steelworkers of America Local 303L – part of the Steelworkers’ international battle with Titan CEO Morry Taylor – chimed in the public debate with their opinions. The business community publicly pressured the aldermen to grant the tax exemption, rightfully pointing out that the aldermen have the responsibility to create a climate that fosters business and economic growth.

And the voice of clear, decisive leadership was noticeably absent.

&uot;Some of the aldermen were very supportive of us, some were not,&uot; Fines said matter-of-factly. &uot;But that’s politics. And that’s not going to play a role in our plant.&uot;

Instead, city attorney Walter Brown; county Tax Collector Vernona Sanders; and county Tax Assessor Reynolds Atkins finally toured the facility to determine if the equipment listed in the tax exemption request was actually in place – a move geared toward resolving the concerns of aldermen. &uot;If they have some reason to doubt Walter Brown’s word, they are welcome to come out,&uot; Fines said. &uot;As we’ve said before, we have nothing to hide.&uot;

And while the positive resolution of the tax exemption issue does please Fines, he remains concerned about the task at hand – scaling back the Natchez plant from a tire manufacturing facility to simply a rubber-mixing facility. The move will bring more than 150 more layoffs by mid April, when some 90 employees will be left.

&uot;There’s a lot of fear and frustration,&uot; Fines said. &uot;These people have worked very, very hard.&uot; Many came to work at the plant despite a two-year strike by union employees – a tenuous and difficult situation, at best. Now, as the economy slows down, Titan officials are faced with difficult decisions. Their choice, Fines has said, was to reduce workforce and maintain as many jobs as possible at the Natchez facility. &uot;We hope to weather the storm and be back to building tires.&uot;

And Fines remains concerned about the future, as well. &uot;It’s my personal belief that the economy is in for some hard times this year,&uot; Fines said, rattling off a list signs that ranged from a five-year low in consumer confidence indicators to downturns in the stock market. &uot;Just look at anything in the news.&uot;

That anything includes reports of a temporary shutdown at International Paper’s Natchez mill, as well, which announced this week that it would shut down its No. 2 unit for nine days – another production adjustment caused by the weakening economy. And it, like the Kelley Avenue tire manufacturing plant some three years ago, is for sale.

&uot;That plant faces some of the same challenges we face in our plant,&uot; Fines said. &uot;It’s an older facility in a capital-intensive business.&uot;

The reality of that situation, coupled with the slowdown in the global economy, is hitting home in Natchez, Fines said. And, perhaps, it will provide the incentive necessary to drive economic development efforts.

&uot;It more than underscores the need for jobs in any community,&uot; Fines said. &uot;To think if this community had truly supported us from the beginning, who knows how things might be different now.&uot;

Stacy Graning, editor of The Democrat, can be reached at 445-3539 or via e-mail at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com