James "Lap" Baker, who recently retired from the Hinds County Public Works Department, wants to put infrastructure improvements back on track as the county's District 4 supervisor.
Photo by Trip Burns
After 17 years working in the planning division of the Hinds County's Public Works Department, James "Lap" Baker says he knows the county's roads like the back of his hand.
As such, he believes that roads in the unincorporated areas of the county are not receiving the attention they deserve. Baker, a Democrat vying for a spot in the county's largely white and Republican District 4, realizes he's facing an uphill climb in winning the seat. He recently talked to the Jackson Free Press about the relationship between planning, infrastructure and economic development.
Let's start with the thing that could affect your candidacy: whether the county will pay for party primaries. What would you do if you were on the board right now?
This is where planning comes in—not only physical planning, but you have to have financial planning as well. When contractors or engineering firms embark upon a project, and they submit a budget, they always have a line item called "contingency."
I read where (the board of supervisors) transferred $1 million from the Byram-Clinton Parkway to the road-resurfacing fund, and I'm not trying to make anyone look bad or anything like that, but this is just common sense. Some of the things that go on, you would not have had to do had you just reallocated the 0.58 or 0.6 mills that you took from the Public Works Department several years ago—that was around $600,000.
When you have a responsibility, obviously, you have to do it. It appears they have the money to do it because you have two supervisors who voted to pay for it.
County officials said that it doesn't matter if the county has the money or not, state law requires the county to pay for elections.
You had your budget and finance person there. All you had to do was turn and say, "Ms. (Lillie) Woods, do we have funds in contingency, or in a line item where we can pay for this emergency event?"
Nobody knew that Supervisor (Doug) Anderson would die. Nobody knew that Phil Fisher would win the mayoral race for Clinton. That wasn't an automatic assumption. You still have to plan. I've been in planning for 41 years, and I don't like to do things on the spur of the moment. There are (fellow) church members who will you tell that that.
How would you budget for contingencies?
You look ahead, and you know what your expenses are going to be. There was a guy who headed (the Department of Budget and Finance Administration) named Charlie Barnes. Charlie would come to our department every year before the budget started, and we would sit down—the director, myself and the executive assistant—and we would go over our budget.
At the same time, we would have copies of the county's overall budget—we're looking at it. What enables you to have an increase, in my opinion, is your surplus. So you can't be spending just to be spending, so you can carry some monies over. When you start spending just to spend, (then) your surplus decreases—your amount decreases from your road funds. But when you take nearly 0.6 mills from your road fund that means certain roads are going to suffer.
When did this happen?
(In) 2008 or 2009, and we haven't gotten that millage back, to my knowledge. We, meaning the Public Works Department, used to have an asphalt line item of $1.25 million. We were (overlaying) 13 (to) 16 roads. We haven't done any overlaying in the unincorporated county or the small towns.
What's your position on the Byram-Clinton Parkway? Former District 4 Supervisor Phil Fisher was a supporter of it.
My private company was a contractor on the original study in 1989. I have a private consulting firm, CPC—Comprehensive Planning Consultants. We were one of two sub-consultants under Waggoner (Engineering Inc.). When we did the study for Hinds County, we looked at six corridor alignments. The No. 1 alignment came from (Interstate) 55 on Siwell Road to Davis Road, cut across Davis Road, hooked into Springridge Road and came all the way up—this is an existing thoroughfare so that's less cost—and it went directly into Clinton.
It could be a viable transportation corridor if it goes back to the original alignment. When you go to open space like that, that takes a lot of space and a lot of money. ... I support the parkway, but I'm not a stern supporter of the current alignment to Norrell Road.
Is there anything you would like to add? What else do the people of District 4 need?
Infrastructure improvement and roads. All you have to do is ride the roads out there. This election is not about white and black, Democrat versus Republican. It's not about rich or poor. It's not about male or female. It's about Hinds County being placed in its rightful position among the rest of the 82 counties in the state of Mississippi.
I was reading an article about the population flight from Hinds County, and that's pretty obvious. It's planning. In order to maintain your population, you've got to have some strong magnets. Other places are installing magnets. Rankin County had an influx in population, but between 1990 and 1999, Rankin County's black population increased by 30 percent and the white population by 14 percent. It's not just white people fleeing. You have to have some good planning to keep and attract people to your county and to your city.