Board owes over $500,000 to property owners

Shad White

TUPELO, Miss. – On March 4, at a press conference State Auditor Shad White announced he has issued demand letters to each current member of the Town Creek Master Water Management District Board of Commissioners for approving unlawful per diem payments to themselves. The total of all demands is $523,388.76 and includes interest and cost of recovery.

The names of the commissioners including one deceased individual and the corresponding demand amounts are:

James Robinson – $85,877.68

Jim Bucy – $88,100.56

Jim Long – $11,797.71

The late John Morgan – $103,122.60

Kenneth Oswalt – $95,748.05

Luther Oswalt – $23,565.43

Michael Pannell – $90,853.43

Teressa Winters – $24,323.30

The Town Creek Master Water Management District was created by court order in 1961 to provide flood management and improve water drainage in Lee, Pontotoc, Prentiss, and Union Counties. Water management districts were once popular in the United States, but Town Creek District is now one of four master water management districts remaining in the nation and the only one in Mississippi. The Town Creek Board collects revenue by assessing a tax on property located within the special district. The tax is collected as part of property owners’ property taxes paid to their county tax collector. Nearly 4,700 parcels of land—which includes homes and commercial property like Barnes Crossing Mall—are located in the district. Over 4,400 of those parcels are in Lee County. Using their taxing authority, the Board paid for retention ponds and drainage ditches over the past half-century. In addition, the Board accumulated a bank account balance of approximately $1.3 million. As that balance increased, the Board increased their own pay from the district’s bank accounts. The Board has legal authority to receive maximum per diem payments of $12.50 for time spent conducting the district’s business. They are also reimbursed for actual expenses incurred for their work. Seventeen years ago, the Board began steadily increasing the per diem payments over the legal limit. By 2014, Board members were paying themselves $600 per meeting. Auditor White said, “This is an example of a small, tucked-away board that very few people know about, using its power to overpay itself. This is the danger of hidden boards and small government offices. A lack of transparency opens the door to big losses for taxpayers.” The illegal overpayments caused a loss of over $350,000 to local landowners. Board members will be personally responsible for paying back these losses plus interest and investigative costs. “I am committed to recovering this money for property owners in Lee, Pontotoc, Prentiss, and Union Counties,” said White. “They took a loss—and many of them may not have even known they were paying a tax to this Board—and deserve to be made whole.” Each Board member is covered by a surety bond. A bond is a type of insurance policy for taxpayers which helps ensure misspent public funds are recovered.

Public corruption can be reported to the Office of the State Auditor online any time by clicking the red “Report Fraud” button at www.osa.ms.gov or via telephone during normal business hours at 1-(800)-321-1275.

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