What's up with the down?
by Peter Rinaldi
Here's the good news: Natchez has a new police chief, Walter Armstrong, who seems to be a strong leader and might be able to redirect a department that hasn't seen good leadership since Ken Fairly was chief. There's also more good news: The voters choice of Travis Patten seems to be working out. Patten's job, like Armstrong's, is to direct a department that is more successful at making arrests, taking a bite out of crime. The less drug trafficking there is, the safer the community. Both men seem up to the task.
Crime is just one socio-economic factor in determining whether a community is improving or declining. There seems to be little worthwhile argument in town against the premise that Natchez is in decline, except for a few incumbent political insiders and the usual ostrich head-in-the-sand group.
Of course, the decline has been precipitated by the loss of industrial jobs and the inability of the community to replace them. But there are also other factors: good schools or the lack thereof, affordable rental housing, a sketchy labor force, poor access to transportation systems, capital formation, political infighting and race relations to name just a few. When all these factors point to the negative, it's hard for a community to succeed.
The only true political leader who swept across the Natchez stage in the past generation was Larry L. "Butch" Brown. Brown served as Natchez Mayor for three terms and changed the face of Natchez forever, both good and bad. You can criticize him for his ego, his falsehoods, his absurd politicking and spending, but at least he had a vision of where Natchez should go. And while you may not have agreed with the vision, at least he had a plan.
Mayors before him and after have had no plan other than to get re-elected. To be as kind as possible, the Adams County Board of Supervisors is hapless, hopeless and intellectually challenged. Supervisors and the aldermen can't even come up with a design and funding for a public pool. How would you expect them to create an economic miracle?
They haven't. They won't. Never.
Census figures tell the story. Adams County has a 2016 estimated population of 31,246, down 3.2% from the 2010 Census. The 2016 figures also include a large inmate population at the Adams County Correctional Center on Hwy. 84. Remember, in 1980 the population of Adams County was 38,035. That means in 36 years, we've lost 6,789 persons (birth and death rates are about the same). And it's a little facetious to include prisoners as real contributors to society. But the Census counts people where they are domiciled currently.
During the same 36-year period, Natchez population has dropped from 22,015 to 15,109, an awe-inspiring decline of 31%. 28% of the population in the city is below the poverty line. Take a gulp here.
Natchez-Adams County employment averaged 10,640 persons in 2016. In 2010, a monthly average of 10,790 workers had jobs. In 2000, 14,550 had employment and in 1990, the monthly average was 14,990 persons. From 1990 to 2016, that's a 41% drop in jobs.
You would think potential investors in the Natchez economy would be a bit wary, as they have been since the Great Recession. But there are quite a few retailers targeting low-income consumers that have expanded here and medical services have grown as well. Medicaid and Medicare pump tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. Maybe our future is in poor people's business?
That question doesn't seem too invigorating or hopeful. The axiom, 'you can't do business with people who don't have money' seems more apt.
Despite it's fractious politics, it's hard not to have a strong affinity with Natchez. It's like having a family member you love who continually does wrong. No matter how bad he or she behaves, you still love this person and this community. You hope for hope things will get better, and they just don't. They get worse.
There are many people involved in Natchez-Adams County trying to make things better, like the new group, Friends of the Riverfront. But Natchez tends to recycle old bad ideas regularly, like a revival of the downtown association or levying higher property and sales taxes to make government more effective. The history shows local government is not effective and there's a good case to be made that increasing taxes deters economic growth and pushes development to areas that are less taxed.
Most of the extra tax money that's come from the heads-on-beds tax and increased property assessments has gone to the hiring of more employees or the payment of existing employees at higher salaries. There's never much thought given to why the extra taxes aren't sparking an economic revival. (They will never do so).
There's lots of pretend in town. Natchez, Inc. pretends it can recruit industry. The Natchez Chamber pretends its an advocate for the business community. The supervisors and aldermen pretend they are working on economic development, when in fact, they are too besieged by the hurley-burley of their regular agendas to do anything really positive in terms of economics. They grab at straws.
The two biggest economic development projects in the county in recent years were the supervisors' purchase of the Rentech-IP property for $9.2 million, a total waste of taxpayers' dollars and the upcoming building of the levee. The county does have plenty of land for development. What it lacks are good prospects in a very competitive national environment. The land protected by the levee is valuable only when there is a shortage of good property. There is no shortage here but an oversupply. County leaders are gambling that the levee land's proximity to the river will secure tenants. Supervisors are throwing the dice just like they did with the Rentech-IP purchase.
That's why the work of the Walter Armstrong-Travis Patten team could be significant. If crime is lessened and offenders actually put in jail by the judges, then the community benefits. Instead of being in the bottom 2% of safe communities in America, according to FBI stats, then we rise up the ladder and actually become a safe place to work and live.
That, in turn, attracts more visitors, more people who want to live here for the lifestyle, and possible commercial-business investors. Natchez-Adams County has so many deeply entrenched problems, your head starts spinning thinking of ways to turn things around.
Like the family member who is the "bad egg," Natchez is a place you love. But it's so frustrating and emotionally draining to hear so much bad news nearly all the time.
We do need another leader, similar in vision to a Butch Brown. That person isn't on the horizon right now. But he or she could spark renaissance of a stricken community that so desperately needs hope and progress. Let's hope that hero comes soon, because the Census figures show Natchez-Adams County is losing population at a quick pace, making it difficult for existing businesses to survive and maintain even paltry current employment levels.
Tale of Two Cities and Their Unionization
by Peter Rinaldi
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times. It became the worst of times."
Nissan workers in Canton just rejected a bid by the U.A.W. to unionize by a 60-40 margin.
The union-management struggles in Canton reminded me of what happened to Natchez in the 1980s to early 2000s. The conflict put segments of the Canton area community against each other. Fortunately,the union loss means 3,500+ Nissan employees still have their high-paying jobs and the community keeps growing.
For Natchez, the outcome was different.
Natchez-Adams County had benefited from its post-WWII industrialization. Several thousand new jobs came with prospering new industries. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s changes were occurring that were dramatic. As union shop wages and benefits escalated and workers enjoyed better lives, the factories' profit margins ebbed. Struggles with unions constantly creating production snafus and expensive inefficiencies. Management and labor were always at each other's throats --- not a happy environment from which to make money.
In the 1980s, Diamond International, a union shop, said it was losing money and must have a more pro-company contract to survive. It did not get the contract. The company closed forever, laying off 350+ workers. More than 25 years later, Mississippi River Corporation finally opened there with a small staff but couldn't make it and the paper recycler folded. The remains were bought by von Drehle from North Carolina, who reinvested heavily in the plant. But employment is a shadow of what it once was, about 75 workers.
Armstrong Tire, a haven for the pro-union faithful, kept losing money, in part because of its antiquated three-story factory and also because of its punitive union contract. The company sold to a start-up, Fidelity Tire, which could not make a profit at the factory. Then Fidelity sold to Titan Tire. When Local No. 303 objected to Titan Tire president Morry Taylor's changes at the factory, relations soured. The Local, with the support of its national organization, walked out, leading to a two-year confrontation between Taylor and the national union. The workers never went back. Taylor tried to make tires with a new labor force, but the factory closed due to mounting losses. Titan Tire remains closed to this day.
International Paper Company in Natchez at one time employed more than 1400 workers, paying some of the highest wages in the area. Many workers made more than $50,000 a year. Five unions were established at the plant and starting in the 1990s, the plant had difficulty making a profit. Foreign competitors started making some of IP's products at a cheaper selling price. Those products were generally cheaper in quality, too. IP's massive payroll and byzantine labor rules made the plant inefficient and eventually unprofitable. IP went to it unions asking for relief. But union organizers believed management was lying about the change in the bottom line.
The plant started laying off people, both union and contract labor help. When Lenzing, a European competitor of IP in the fiber business, agreed to buy the Natchez plant, it said wages and benefits would have to be cut 10% or the company would not make the purchase. The unions did not believe the plant would ever close. And when workers rejected the IP-Lenzing plea for reduced compensation and benefits, Lenzing walked from the deal and IP closed the plant in Jan. 2003, laying off the remaining 590 workers.
The mill never reopened.
IP could not sell the plant and eventually Rentech of California said it would open a synthetic fuels plant there. But that never happened and Rentech sold the property for $9 million to the Adams County Supervisors, who have let the property decay. Neatly trimmed, grassy fields have 20-foot tall trees in them now. Old paved parking lots are now grown up with trees and brush. All the buildings are gone. One small factory has moved there, a tire recycler. Delta Energy promised 91 employees to the community. And most of the time had less than 20. Castleton Commodities recently purchased the plant and its 30 acres, promising to bring 50 employees in time. The rest of the IP property sits vacant.
Natchez-Adams County never recovered from its industrial closings. The county's population, which was 38,035 in 1980 dropped to 31,248 in 2016. Canton and Madison County saw population rise from 41,600 to 105,000 in the same period. Canton and Madison County's growth are also related to outflow from Jackson, access to the interstate, more progressive government, lower taxes, a stronger regional economy among other factors.
While there are many other components that played into the Natchez-Adams County closures, unionization played a strong role in the economic demise of the plants and the rapid downturn in our economy, the results of which have not been remedied to this day.
A worse ending to the story of Natchez couldn't have been forecast when Diamond International first notified the community it was having trouble making ends meet.
Canton's success story and Natchez's story of failure are both remarkable. One story has a happy ending or at least a happy beginning. The other story is almost too sad to recount.
Rinaldi Report: The Politics of Money
by Peter Rinaldi
The recent confrontation over the Natchez school bond issues really isn't about race. It's about the politics of money.
When the school board first called for spending to build a new high school, the board and its consultant said a tax increase wouldn't be necessary. Of course, that was a lie and people knew it. So the proponents started off on the wrong foot. Then when the actual proposal came in for $45 million for the new high school and accoutrements, the proposal assumed high school population would grow by 25-50%. Now how was that going to happen in the current economy?
Voters were right to reject the proposed bond issue: It was too big, too much and too expensive.
With just a few weeks thought, the school board decided to ram down voters' throats an alternative measure for a $9 million bond. Never was the public's real input wanted. Surely, the school board would schedule a public hearing. But they had the authority to run with a smaller loan, so just do it. Nor was there ever a well-thought out list of improvements that needed to be made. The thinking goes, 'if we can't get 45 million, we can at least get 9 million, without real voter approval.'
The school board left out the obvious need that it should encourage voter and taxpayer support for the new measure and the public schools. The confrontation and petition drive that followed is solely the responsibility of the board's actions. The school board members were a bit dumb. They deserved what they got from the public in response for being so blind to how voters view the local economy and their families' financial situations.
Folks can argue or get lost in 'whites are this' and 'blacks are that,' but the fact is school revenues will increase anyway, because assessments are rising, so says the tax assessor. So the schools will get more local money... maybe not enough for big repairs, but more.
Perhaps it would be wise for the school board to come up with its specific list of repairs it wants, publicize the list, put a price tag on each item and give the public time to digest the information and talk about the repairs and improvements needed. Then come back for the next school year with the proposal. Part of the proposal should include a better maintenance plan, not just a rehab project. Maybe $9 million is too much. Or maybe too little.
Of course, the real antidote for taxpayer opposition to public school bond issues is improved performance by administrators, teachers and students. But those who advocate that new buildings will automatically increase test scores and/or improve overall education are not being realistic.
Use this comparison. If you buy me a fancy new pair of track shoes, I will still not be able to run a 6-minute mile. However, if you train and condition me properly and give me that new pair of track shoes, I may improve my times significantly. The secret is the training and conditioning, not the shoes.
Rinaldi Report: A Time of Healing or Conflict
by Peter Rinaldi
Supervisor Mike Lazarus and Mayor Darryl Grennell have called for "healing" in light of what's gone on between school board member Phillip West and many people from the community. West attacked opponents of school board $9 million loan, saying they were racist. And the opponents have responded in kind, saying he is racist. As you know, the supervisors appointed West to the school board. Philip has always been confrontational, seeing whites as in opposition to black community needs. The boycotts and federal suits were led in part by him.
I know Phillip pretty well. You would be surprised to learn that he is very soft-spoken, kind and caring. That's not the image you get when he's politicking. He's a verbal bomb-thrower much of the time. And I'm not sure his politicking and speechmaking has really helped blacks that much. He was very ineffective as mayor. And I believe he still sees many white people in a negative light, due to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. I'm not sure he's moved past that.
What West and others sometimes don't see is that opposition to school spending, bond issues and loans isn't because whites don't want black kids to have a good education, it's because much of the money spent on the schools is wasted terribly. The Natchez public schools are awful. The State of Mississippi has repeatedly rated our public schools with an F or D grade. So when you tell the public you're going to raise taxes to support a failing system in a depressed local economy, you're going to get opposition.
Superintendent Fred Butcher is really trying to execute a turn-around. But he's stuck with a lackluster locally grown teacher and administrative corps. It's terribly hard to recruit outsiders to a failing system. And most of the students do come from poor families where education is not a priority or a perceived value. Parental support for school activities is minimal. And the testing regime imposed by state officials is actually wasting precious educational and teaching time in repeated training for testing that does not result in improved skills. Butcher and the school board want to make things better. But it's darn hard to do.
The school board should come up with a lower cost plan for facilities repair and upgrades that would be long-term, meaning the cost to taxpayers per year would lower, but the overall cost could actually rise past $9 million mark. The board should also take the time to "sell the concept" to taxpayers. Eventually, if given if budget per school for repairs and how the money will be spent, people will come around. But don't try to ram down voters' throats a $9 million bond issue moments after the same voters rejected a $45 million new school project. The time is not now. Prepare a sound proposal for a year away...and give voters the chance to exercise a voice in the decision-making.
Rinaldi Report: Incendiary Remarks
Phillip West was a failure as mayor of Natchez. That's why voters rejected his reelection bid. Now he's set the community on edge again, this time as the defacto leader of the Natchez School Board.
Citizens do have the right to protest tax increases and school budgets, especially in light of the schools' poor performance. And the schools, including West, have the obligation to make the case that repairs and upgraded facilities are needed. But you have to CONVINCE voters your view is the correct one and seek their support. Labeling them as racist simply because they do not agree with you is philosophically bankrupt.
It's also calculated. By using the race card, West knows many black voters will automatically rally round him, even if $9 million loan isn't well thought out and lacks support. While the school board does have the authority to borrow money and more or less demand that supervisors increase taxes to support the schools, it should do so with the consent of the governed, the voters and taxpayers of Natchez-AdamsCounty.
Clearly, there is no mandate at this time for the $9 million loan. West and his school board should seek voters' support for any such package.
And now, with his incendiary remarks, that's much harder to do. Did he seek to pit blacks vs. whites? Oh, yes. That was his intent. Natchez continues to suffer as a result.