Thursday, June 21, 2007

I'm Totally Disgusted!

I went to the meeting of the Natchez Planning Commission. They handled a few cases, and then came to the Proposed Natchez Development Code. The consultant, who has certainly never impressed me with any wisdom or vision, was there. She asked the Planning Commission to recommend adoption of the Draft Code to the Board of Aldermen. They made a few minor changes, and then passed the motion to recommend adoption. There was one abstention (I believe it was Linda Futrell), but everyone else voted yes.

As you know, I wrote extensive comments on the Draft, most of which were totally noncontroversial. I not only sent them to the Planning Department, but I mailed them to every member's home. Do you think they ever even mentioned them - much less discussed them? Of course not! Did a single one of those members express any concern whatsoever about what this Code will do to Natchez? Of course not! They just rolled over and played dead. They should all resign in shame.

We had a poll on this blog about development of the Bluffs, and 97% of you voted for something besides condos and casinos. Well, you all just lost. 75 foot condos, casinos, and liquor stores will be allowed in the historic waterfront district by right, and there will be nothing you can do about it.

The Planning Commission was so proud of itself for banning electric signs in the historic district. Well, those signs will be the least of our problems. Plus, you know perfectly well that the Board of Aldermen will allow them.

I did accomplish one thing. I requested that my comments be made a part of the public record, which they assured me they would. That will help with the inevitable lawsuits - since that seems to be the only way to accomplish anything in this city.

I don't know about you, but I'm totally disgusted!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rentech Questions

The following was submitted by Jane Gardner as a letter to the Editor of the Natchez Democrat . However, it was not printed as submitted, as sometimes happens. So, here is the correct version.

I am concerned with the prospect of Rentech, Inc. establishing a facility in Natchez. I am not only worried about environmental issues but also the expense associated with building and maintaining a coal-to-liquid facility.

Rentech officials and coal industry supporters say Rentech will produce a clean alternative fuel. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: coal-based fuel results in more than twice the greenhouse gas pollution than the conventional gasoline it would replace. It goes on to state: “Without full capture and storage of the carbon dioxide, the coal-to-liquid process results in a 118.5 percent increase in global warming pollution over traditional oil-based fuels.”

The proposed Rentech coal-to-liquid plant will be using the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert coal into a liquid diesel fuel to be used in buses, trucks, and jets. This technique was used in World War II Germany when oil embargos existed, but no company has been built on a commercial scale that also captures the carbon dioxide. Also, it is my understanding that a coal-to-liquid company does not exist in the U.S. at this time.

Even The Denver Post newspaper has spoken out against coal-to-liquid facilities and this is the location of Rentech headquarters: “But even if carbon sequestration is perfected and made affordable – and that’s a big “if” widespread use of coal-to-liquids fuel would create a fuel that still is dirtier than conventional gasoline.”

Not only are the carbon emissions a glaring negative, but the cost of these liquid-to-coal companies is so astronomical that analyst say, economically, it makes no sense. Analyst at M.I.T. estimate the cost at $70 billion to build enough plants to replace 10 percent of American gasoline consumption. The Energy Department estimated that a plant capable of making 50,000 barrels of liquified coal a day would cost $4.5 billion. The United States burns 9 million barrels of gasoline a day.

The coal and mining industries are behind the creation and push for these liquid coal industries, like Rentech. The coal industry is spending millions of dollars lobbying in congress right now to pass legislation with government incentives so these companies will have the funding to be built and maintained.

The New York Times reported that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, which has $5.3 billion in sales, told an industry conference nearly two years ago that the value of Peabody’s coal reserves would skyrocket almost tenfold, to $3.6 trillion, if it sold all its coal in the form of liquid fuels. Peabody has quadrupled it’s annual lobbying budget to about $2 million since 2004. There is no surprise Peabody Energy is investing heavily to promote Rentech.
The Chinese government announced it is considering suspending its planned $13 billion dollar liquid coal facility because of the high energy, water, and monetary costs associated with the plant.

The coal industry and Rentech are asking congress to pass bills that will give them loan guarantees for six to 10 major plants with the estimate of building one at $4.5 billion and a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of fuel sold through 2020, also automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel and permission for the Air Force to sign a 25-year contract for almost a billion gallons a year of liquid coal fuel.

We do not have an endless supply of coal in this country; it’s already becoming harder to mine, leading to the increased use of destructive techniques like mountain top removal mining which according to the EPA, at its current rate, another million acres will disappear within decades.

Mississippi should be investing in renewable energy resources like biofuels which are based on agriculture so they’re good for America and for the farmer and they are domestically produced, not imported.

The coal industry, the most polluting industry in our nation, wants to artificially create and entirely new industry that will produce a product that emits twice the carbon and greenhouse gases as gasoline. This is outrageous and it will be at the tax-payer’s expense.

Unfortunately, I believe this coal-to-liquid scheme is nothing more than a way for the coal and mining industries to get richer at the expense of our health, our land, and our tax dollars.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

You Should Be Worried About Your Property Taxes - Part II

In the previous post, I talked about why I couldn't support Jerry Lyles for Tax Assessor. Now, let me tell you why I wholeheartedly support the incumbent, Reynolds Atkins. (Full disclosure: he is the father of my next door neighbor.)

In my opinion, he is the perfect public servant.

Accessible: He is almost always in his office and will stop whatever he's doing to talk to a taxpayer. When I first moved here, he spent a lot of time explaining to me how taxes work in Mississippi, which is quite different from the way it's done in Maryland, where I moved from. I went to see him several months ago for help writing an article for this blog about how tax assessments are done. He took time to go over the process in detail and answered all my questions. I've been in his office several times, and I've seen him deal with the public.

Honest and Fair: He has never had a complaint lodged against him in his 12 years in office. He's only had 6 appeals in all that time, and none were upheld by the Board of Supervisors. If you point out a mistake to him, he'll correct it. In fact, he pointed out a mistake in mine that I didn't even notice! He has passed all of the state audits on his office with flying colors.

Competent and Experienced: The Tax Assessor appraises property. That's all he does. He doesn't determine how much tax you pay. That's done by the County and City officials. You want someone is that office that knows about and is experienced in appraisals. Reynolds was an appraiser for 17 years before opening Atkins Lumber Co. He went back into appraisals when he was elected Tax Assessor, and he turned his business over to his sons.

When I wrote my previous post, he sent me the following statement and asked me to post it here, which I am happy to do:

Don't be misled!

The Tax Assessor's job is to value property by making property assessments. Jerry Lyles says in his ads that taxes are too high, and he will lower assessments. He could lower property assessments as much as he wants, but it would not change the amount that property owners pay in taxes. The Board of Superviors and the Board of Aldermen and the School Board would just increase the millage (tax rate) to get the money they need for their budgets.

In addition, the Mississippi State Tax Commission audits the Tax Assessor's offices four times a year to determine that assessments are done in a fair and equal manner. If a Tax Assessor does not follow the rules of the Tax Commission, they can decide to turn down the Tax Assessor's tax roll. If this happens, they can withhold all homestead exemption money and the one mill imposed for use for reappraisal ($190,000 a year).

Currently, all appraisals are handled by the me and my staff at no additional cost to the County. This has been a savings of over $1,000,000 in the 12 years I've been in office. Jerry Lyles has no appraisal experience and will find it necessary to hire contract appraisers for about $70,00 per year. In 2009, a reappraisal year, the cost will be over $200,000.

If you have any concerns, questions, or problems with your taxes, please come to our office. We are always available to taxpayers.

- Reynolds Atkins, Tax Assesssor
BOTTOM LINE: The job of the Tax Assessor is to appraise property. Atkins is an appraiser, and Lyles is not. Who do you vote for? DUH!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

You Should Be Worried About Your Property Taxes

One of the major sources of revenue for the City of Natchez and Adams County is property taxes. Do you know how they figure how much tax you owe? Last year, I wrote a couple of articles about tax assessments trying to explain how it worked. However, I left out a key component. Who determines the value of your house and property?

In Mississippi, that's what we elect a Tax Assessor for. There was actually a study done on effectiveness of Tax Assessors, and it ranked the states. Amazingly, Mississippi was not at the bottom, but slightly below average. What we have done right is to have it done on a county level and by an elected, rather than appointed, tax assessor. What we need to improve is enforceable state standards.

Basically, what this means is that it's up to us to vote in a competent Tax Assessor. We will have that opportunity on August 7. If you don't learn about the candidates and, even worse, if you don't vote, then I don't want to hear any griping about taxes. How you vote is secret, but whether you vote is public record.

This time the outcome will be determined on August 7. There will be no runoffs and no generals, because there are only two candidates and they're both Democrats. So if you don't vote in the Democratic primary, you'll have no say in how your taxes are determined.

Let's look at the candidates. Challenger Jerry Lyles is running against incumbent Reynolds Atkins.

I'll start with the challenger, because he worries me a lot. In the last election in 2003, Lyles ran against Sammy Cauthen for Supervisor District 1. I thought he was impressive, but I didn't feel like I knew much about him. I knew Sammy Cauthen and had no significant cause for complaint, so he got my vote.

In March 2004, Lyles was arrested and charged with three counts of false voter registration, for which he could have been jailed for 3 years and fined $15,000. When he went to court, he ran ads on television asking supporters to show up to support him, for which he was admonished by the judge.

"This is a court of law and will be conducted as such. This is not a circus, not a political meeting, and not a Jerry Lyles Jr. meeting. Nothing is decided by the number of supporters you turn out for court. The court decides the cases fairly. It was an outrageous and poor decision on your part. Your actions show a lack of respect for the court and were not very smart."

In June, Lyles pled guilty to one count of registering a voter who did not live in the county. The judge sentenced him to one year's probation, and at the end of that year, his record was expunged. I saw no jail time or fines mentioned. (Doesn't this sound familiar?)

Because his record was expunged, he can legally run for office. Another confessed criminal is running for office. Have these people no shame? Although his crime is not as heinous as that of Vile Vines, I really do not want a criminal determining my taxes. He was interviewed by the paper for an article on this race, and of course his past was brought up. Do you know what he had the nerve to say? "Mistakes were made." I hate that phrase and anyone who uses it. Not "I made a mistake". No, those mistakes just made themselves. It means he does not acknowledge his crimes, nor does he have any remorse. Therefore, he could easily do it again.

Do you realize how open this office is to abuse? What do you think will happen if his supporters go in and tell a tale of woe? Will their assessment be reduced? How often will that happen? We'll never know, because we can't challenge or investigate every property assessment. If this man is elected, hold on to you wallets, because to make up for any favors he might do for his friends, the rest of us will have to pay more. People like me who openly oppose him might find our assessments magically increased. Of course, we have the right to appeal, but who knows what will happen in the Natchez courts.

Plus, he's going to cost us more money from the getgo. He's going to have to contract out the assessments, since he doesn't even know how to assess property. Or even worse, try to do it himself after he's taken a little course.

In my next post, I'm going to tell you about Reynolds Atkins and why I love him to death!

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Mysterious Disappearing Meetings

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I'm obsessed with the proposed Development Code for the city of Natchez because of parts that will be devastating to the Natchez that we love. You also know that I've told you twice that the Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Adjustment were meeting jointly to discuss the Code and make recommendations to the Mayor & Board of Aldermen.

The first meeting was supposedly May 17. There was a meeting, but they had other items on their Agenda and only briefly discussed the Code. They decided to meet in a special meeting in about two weeks just for this purpose. After several inquiries, I was told by staff in the Planning Department that the meeting would be May 31. Others called and were told the same thing. We went to the City Council Chambers at 5:15 pm and found the building locked. I went across to City Hall and found it locked as well. Later I discovered that no meeting had been called - no members were notified. Is the Planning staff incompetent or did they lie to us?

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Planning Commission isn't until June 21, where the staff again say the Code will be discussed. Will it really? Will the members of the Zoning Board be invited? Might the meeting happen earlier without the public being told? Will the Mayor & Board of Aldermen vote on the Code without the recommendations of their Commissions? Who know the answers to any of these questions? This is, after all, the magical land of Natchez where anything can happen. Stay tuned as I attempt to solve the riddle of the Mysterious Disappearing Meetings!