FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Some Forrest County residents have formed a concerned citizens' group to fight Petal's proposed annexation.
Tommy MacDermott has lived in the Glendale community for 25 years and helped organize Concerned Citizens Against Petal Annexation.
"They don't see any benefit Petal could give them," MacDermott said. "The fire rating was the same up until a few months ago. The Forrest County Sheriff's Office provides really good law enforcement. We have a good water, sewer and fire district, so we just don't see any benefit, any way Petal could help us."
Petal Mayor Hal Marx said he expected resident objection, but still thinks they will receive improved services as part of Petal.
"We expect opposition," Marx said. "Any annexation, usually, you're going to have opposition, so they're exercising their rights. First of all, the taxes won't be nearly as high as some people are leading them to believe, and the services will be better. I mean, I just think when you have a full time fire department with a better rating, it's going to help your insurance, and it's going to make you feel safer when you know that we can be there in just a matter of a couple of minutes."
He added, "Whereas with volunteers, God bless them, it does take them a little longer sometimes to get places. Our police department is a great police department. We have the safest city in Mississippi, and so they'll be part of that. I just think that with code enforcement, zoning, it'll protect their property values. It'll make it (so) when they get ready to sell their home, they'll be able to get a higher value for it. I think there's a lot of benefits there, not to mention that will help facilitate commercial growth along the highway, which in turn, will be better for the area. It will create jobs, more convenience for shopping, sales tax money that will then be able to go back into our area and improve things – streets and drainage and things like that- all that is going to be a benefit to them. So I think if they say they're satisfied, I'm sure they're satisfied now, but not having lived in the city, they really have nothing to compare it to. I think if they give it a chance, they'll realize that they will be better off."
MacDermott said his group has contacted Hattiesburg attorney Robin Roberts to serve as its legal representation. The group's organization and hiring of legal counsel comes after the Glendale Utility District filed a federal lawsuit against Petal because of the city's annexation ordinance.
"We're all together in a unified front to make sure that Petal doesn't annex us," MacDermott said.
Marx said, "The utility lawsuit, I believe, is going to be dismissed. Our attorneys have made some very good arguments in the law where this is not even an issue that should be brought up at this time. We're not talking about trying to interfere with their right to perform as a utility service. Obviously, I think what they were afraid of is that we were going to come in and try to compete with them or take them over. That's not our intention. I said earlier, if we have to, we will buy it out if we need to, but that's not our intention. So I think the lawsuit is misplaced, and I think eventually, that's going to be tossed out of court. So if they're waiting on that and hoping that that's going to be part of their defense, I think they're going to be disappointed."
Marx also noted the majority of the Glendale community is not included in area that will be annexed.
"Some people think that they're included, and they're not. The Glendale area, for instance, has around 300 people or so that are going to be included. I know they have a petition with 750 signatures, so that means, obviously, that at least 400 or so people signed it that aren't affected by it. So I would just caution them before they give money for an attorney, make sure they're actually part of the area because if not, they're basically wasting their money because they're not going to be affected either way."
MacDermott does not live in the area to be annexed, but said he is involved because his community is involved.
"We're in good shape," he said. "Got a good, strong community. We hold no animosity against Petal. This is just a business decision. They feel that when the (Evelyn Gandy) Parkway develops more and more businesses come in, they'll be able to get that sales tax, so they'll have more money to spend. And we just don't see any benefit."
Marx said, "We're not enemies. I sure don't want them to feel like we're trying to oppress them or to force them into something they don't want to be a part of, but we have to look out for what's best for the city. I understand they're looking out for what they think is best for them. When it's all said and done, I hope we'll all still be friends, and I hope that they'll see that being part of the City of Petal is not nearly as bad as they think it'll be. What would be for the long term interest of Petal, I think it is vital that we connect to the interstate and are able to connect the rest of the Evelyn Gandy highway. It was built to connect Petal to the interstate, so I think that is very crucial and needed."
Judge Robert Lancaster will hear Petal's annexation case on September 21 in Forrest County Chancery Court. MacDermott is hoping his neighborhood will be excluded from that case.
"(We're hoping) that Petal will let us dismiss the entire matter, and if they want to expand, I think there's other areas they can go to," he said.
But Marx expects the case to end up going to trial.
"I think we always knew going into it that there would be opposition," he said. "It'll be up to the judge to decide, ultimately, if we've proven our case, and I think, probably, we'll go to a trial. I think most likely there will be enough opposition at the hearing on the 21st probably to have a trial some date in the future, maybe by next spring or so. It'll be up to the judge to set that, but I think once we get to that point, we'll be able to win our case and go through with it."