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Mayor avoids answers about $6M road project

By Staff
Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
March 21, 2004
Welcome to Meridian, a tranquil, East Mississippi city richly steeped in history, built around a once-thriving railroad industry and proud birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers the "Father of Country Music."
Just don't bother driving anywhere.
If you do, you could literally cause thousands of dollars of damage to your car. Many of the city's streets are littered with long, deep cracks and huge, gaping potholes no one seems able to repair.
You'd think those problems would be easily solved. Well, think again. This is Meridian a town whose mayor and city council seem uninterested in repairing streets in a timely manner.
At least that's the impression Mayor John Robert Smith left Wednesday after a news conference in which he either didn't want to answer or didn't know answers to questions about planned street repairs.
Instead of discussing a street repair program funded by $6 million borrowed at taxpayer expense, the mayor sidestepped the issue and often talked about his philosophy of financing the projects and buying asphalt.
Let's take a minute and look at what specific questions the mayor didn't, couldn't or simply wouldn't answer at the news conference sometimes after being asked two, three or four times in a row.
Start date. Asked if he has a date for street repairs to start and end, Smith said no. In contrast, Lauderdale County supervisors expect to start work May 1 on their own $3.8 million street repair program.
Economic development. Asked to talk specifically about a mysterious, secret, unnamed economic development project that may or may not affect the start date for the city's road repairs, Smith refused.
Road asphalt. Asked why he believes it's unwise to buy asphalt in the winter for the planned road projects but it's OK to buy it so county workers can repair other city streets, Smith never answered the question.
But wait. That's not all.
The mayor didn't even know when the city received the $6 million loan. He insisted it was October; only after he was questioned did he bother to check with the city's fiscal officer and learn it was Aug. 26, 2003.
Smith then said the date the money was received had no bearing on decisions about the road projects. And on that point he's right all policy decisions rest solely with the mayor and city council.
But no matter how much Smith and most of the city council talk about the merits of the street project, one fact is absolutely, unequivocally, unquestionably irrefutable: No streets have been repaired or paved.
Sure, councilmen approved a list of streets they plan to pave with the $6 million. But, hey, that action came last month more than a year after city officials first broached the subject of street repairs.
Meanwhile, county workers are paving a few, select city streets with city-bought asphalt, county officials plan a May start for their own street project and the state is re-surfacing part of Highway 39.
As for the city's $6 million loan, well, it has sat unused in an AmSouth Bank account since Aug. 26 that's almost seven months or a total of 209 days through today with no end in sight.
Oh, but Smith said people have told him they understand the delay in the road work.
Smith said the city is waiting for the "right time" to hit the asphalt market. He said the Public Works Department should be ready to advertise the projects for bids within two weeks.
Said Smith: "The public that has talked to me said they understand. They've heard those explanations and it makes sense to them. They have had trust and confidence in this city administration for three terms."
The mayor says people understand the delay in the road work but what about those who are quickly growing impatient? If you want to voice your opinion, call the mayor at city hall, 485-1927, or at home, 485-4983.

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