Retrospect on 2020

NEMiss.news Sylvia's

News in 2020 was mostly bad – but not all bad

Is there anybody who is sorry to see 2020 come to an end?

Yet, it wasn’t all bad. Mostly bad, yes, but not all.

One of the most popular stories published on this website in 2020 was a happy one. It was about a Siamese cat named Sylvia, who was lost and – against all odds – restored to her owner, who was from Michigan.

One of the interesting things about publishing stories on a website compared to printing them in a newspaper (Remember those?), is that we can tell exactly how many people read every story we publish on NEMiss.News.

We typically post five to eight new stories every day. Those stories were read by 336,777 different readers in 2020, most, but not all of them, read by folks living north of Highway 82. Altogether, those stories were read 595,777 times (page views). That was an increase of more than 40 percent over 2019.


Most of the news in 2020 was not good news

Relatively few people still living remember the horrors and losses of World War II. Many millions of us remember the attacks by Muslim radicals on September 11, 2001, which killed about 3,000 Americans.

But COVID has killed more than a hundred times that many Americans – 350,981 as of today, New Years Eve. In Mississippi alone, more than half again more – 4,800 – have died of COVID than were killed on September 11th.

Union County Coroner Pam Boman told us Wednesday evening, Dec. 30, that she expects to record at least 47 total deaths in Union County in December alone. Her previous high month for total deaths was in the low 30s.


Biggest embezzlement case in the history of Mississippi

NEMiss.news Brett DiBiase arrested in MDHS scandal

Brett DiBiase, arrested and charged in MDHS embezzlement, allegedly had drug rehab paid by tax dollars.

Before anyone in Mississippi had given much thought to COVID-19, the state was hit by the biggest public corruption story in the state’s history.

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, five people were arrested and charged with having made off with $94-million in funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS). State Auditor Shad White said the money was from federal funds intended for the poorest of the poor in Mississippi. Instead the money had ended up in the hands of a bizarre cast of characters, including some former “professional wrestlers” and a famous former NFL football player named Brett Favre, who got over a million dollars of the loot; nothing on the record indicated Favre had actually done anything for the poor people of Mississippi.

MEMiss.News Families First group

Nancy New (left) and former MDHS Executive Director John Davis (third from left) who were arrested and charged in the MDHS embezzlement scandal , seen here with “whistleblower” former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (second from right) who often appeared with New at events for her DHS-funded programs, including Families First for Mississippi. U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (right). one of the many top state Republicans who received funds from Nancy New. The men second and fourth from left are not part of this story. Photo Families First for Mississippi Facebook page

The fact that $94-million intended for the poorest people in the state had been so shabbily misspent was bad enough. What made it even more disgusting was that some of those arrested and charged were close political allies of Governor Tate Reeves and former two-term Governor Phil Bryant. Some of the people arrested had been very close to Reeves and Bryant and had contributed to their political campaigns.

Most of the money had been purloined at MDHS during Bryant’s eight years as governor. The whole scheme had apparently been managed by Bryant’s hand-picked MDHS head, John Davis, one of those arrested.

NEMiss.news Key Players MDHS embezzlement scandal

L-R Nancy New, John Davis, Phil Bryant tangled together in the MDHS embezzlement scheme

Mike Hurst, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, a Republican appointee, quickly jumped in and said he was interested in prosecuting the case. However, little has been heard of Hurst’s interest in the case for the last ten months.

The embezzlement was hot news in Mississippi and among the most avidly read stories on NEMiss.News for a month. Then the story pretty much disappeared from the news.

The first case of coronavirus in the US was verified in the state of Washington on January 20. Nobody in Mississippi paid much attention to it until March 11, when the first cases were confirmed in the state. Amazingly, Governor Reeves was on vacation in Spain, then one of the hotspots for COVID-19 on March 11. He returned to Mississippi as hastily as possible, including travel in private jets from the east coast; cost of that to the Mississippi taxpayers has yet to be revealed.

Then Reeves started making headlines by “managing” the COVID pandemic in Mississippi. More about that could be and has been said, but no need to repeat it here. Suffice it say that the story about the huge embezzlement got buried in all the overwhelming news about the coronavirus.

There was finally a little movement in the record-sized embezzlement case just two weeks ago, when Hinds County District Attorney Jody E. Owens, II, announced that former wrestler Brett DiBiase had agreed to plead guilty and help prosecute the other defendants in the case.

July 2019: Brett Favre, Tate Reeves and Phil Bryant in a photo Reeves posted on Facebook

Some of those other defendants have lawyered up well. Jim Wade of Tupelo, one of the most successful trial lawyers in the state, has been retained. There has been speculation that President-Elect Biden might appoint a Democrat as U.S. Attorney to replace Hurst. Also, speculators think that the U.S. Attorney’s office might then take a more active interest in what happened to the $94-million U.S. Treasury dollars.

Could be an interesting story to follow in 2021.


City acquires Fred’s building

New Albany city officials formally took possession of the former Fred’s Discount building Thursday morning, Jan. 2, 2020. Mayor Tim Kent said the city paid $600,000 for the building, which has about 17,000 square feet, heated and cooled. Kent said the city will take advantage of a state low-interest program for cities and borrow the money for purchase and renovation of the building. The city intends to renovate the building to house the city police department and the city owned New Albany Lights, Gas, and Water. The building became available when Fred’s filed for bankruptcy and closed its stores.

Fire chief retires in February. New chief appointed.

New Albany Fire Chief Steve Coker retired in February 2020 after 28 years of service, due to health concerns. He also resigned as county fire coordinator. Coker became fire chief in New Albany in 2011. Deputy Fire Chief Mark Whiteside was designated acting chief. The Board of Aldermen formally appointed Whiteside as Fire Chief at its August 4 meeting.


VIP seating company goes broke, closes plant, and rises again

VIP seating, which had employed more than 500 people in New Albany announced in February that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company had started business in 2012 and manufactured luxury theater seating. It had appeared to be very successful. The original company was sold to a private equity group, which filed for the bankruptcy. The company announced in late March that it was closing permanently in New Albany.

Then, eight months later, in November came the announcement that the original owners of VIP had acquired some of the bankrupt company’s assets and would resume manufacturing operations in New Albany with about 100 employees. The State of Mississippi, through the Mississippi Development Authority, apparently provided financial assistance to the VIP operators in re-opening the plant.


Michigan cat escapes in New Albany, recovered 39 days later


Sylvia is still lost, last seen Thursday April 2, in Pilot parking lot

Early Monday morning, March 23, Michigan truck driver Melissa Rojas was stopped at the Pilot Truck Stop next to Interstate 22 in New Albany. Traveling with Ms. Rojas was her four-year-old, 10 pound Siamese cat Sylvia. Somehow, Sylvia escaped and Rojas could not find her in the early morning dark. Rojas had to be on her way with her truckload of freight and had to leave without Sylvia.

Rojas contacted Second Chances Rescue in Pontotoc, which put out some flyers with information about Sylvia and telephone numbers for Rojas. Because Sylvia was declawed and wearing a bell on her collar, there was concern that she would have the odds stacked against her.

NEMiss.News had a major role in getting the word out about Sylvia.

NEMiss.news Sylvia's helper Jay Liccardi

Jay Liccardi, gestures while talking with NEMiss.news about Sylvia’s rescue.

Employees and truck drivers at the Pilot were on the lookout for Sylvia and food was put out for her. Jay Liccardi, a maintenance worker at Pilot, put the word out to truckers and other Pilot employees. Some thought they had seen Sylvia, but had not been able to catch her. Tupelo attorney Angela Brooks joined the search for Sylvia.

On May 1, Brooks brought a live trap, provided by the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society, from Tupelo and set it up at the Pilot. The next morning, May 2, Brooks got a call from Kim Franks, a manager at Pilot, and was told that Sylvia was in the trap. Brooks drove to New Albany, picked up Sylvia and took her to her home in Tupelo. She called Melisa Rojas in Michigan.

Sylvia with a full belly and total trust of her rescuers, getting a little rest on a friendly lap.

Shortly after learning that Sylvia had been rescued, Rojas left Michigan and drove her personal vehicle to Angela Brooks’ Tupelo home. There, she was reunited with her pet. Rojas vowed that she would no longer take the risk of letting Sylvia travel with her in her cross-country truck. Sylvia’s story turned out to be one of the top 50 stories of the year on NEMiss.News. It was a story with a happy ending – and it had nothing to do the coronavirus, so reader interest was strong in this otherwise dismal news year.


Food truck regulation draws unexpectedly strong interest

The New Albany Board of Aldermen took up a proposal in June to regulate the operation of food trucks in the city. The story stirred an unexpected amount of interest and some opposition to the proposed ordinance. After considerable discussion, the board passed an ordinance in August authorizing and regulating food truck operations.

New Albany suicide streamed live on Facebook in August

In a sad and bizarre event that might be considered emblematic of a sad, bizarre year, a man shot himself to death on Monday, August 31, in his apartment at Park Plaza. What made the man’s action notable was that he killed himself live on Facebook. Law enforcement officers were called to the scene, but were not able to talk the depressed military veteran out of killing himself. An unknown number of people witnessed the macabre event before Facebook took it down. There were claims that it was the first time there had ever been a live suicide on Facebook, but that has not been confirmed.


New Albany municipal budget passage contentious

Creating the New Albany city budget for the fiscal year starting October 1, 2020, was more troublesome than usual this year. After the budget was drafted and believed to be in its final form, First Ward Alderwoman Amy Livingston wanted to amend it to include $20,000 for a part-time city planner. She could not persuade any other alderman to vote with her for a part-time planner.

The city board was divided on what kind of raise to give city employees for the coming year. Livingston, Alderman-at-Large Keith Conlee and Fourth Ward Alderman Will Tucker wanted to limit city raises to 1.5 percent. Ward Two Alderman Johnny Anderson and Ward Three Alderman Kevin Dale White wanted to give a full three percent raise, which has been the usual practice for several years. The mayor and board members did not get a raise and the raise for city workers was limited to 1.5 percent.


New railroad spur for Union Lumber Company

A new railroad spur connecting Union Lumber Company to the Burlington Northern–Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) was opened on November 19. The direct connection is to the track of Pioneer-Railcorp, which built the new spur for Union. Union Lumber owner Terry Young said the company will use the new spur to expand is service to wholesale customers in the state and region.

NEMiss.News Union Lumber expansion

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on November 19, 2020, for Union Lumber Company’s Pioneer-Railcorp rail spur.


United Funeral Home closed temporarily because of COVID-19

Union Funeral Home President Rodney Shands announced on Tuesday, December 15 that the funeral home would close because all of its staff had tested positive for the coronavirus or had been exposed to employees who had tested positive. The story drew strong interest from NEMiss.News readers, perhaps because it dramatically illustrated the seriousness of the pandemic. United had served Union County for more than a century without interruption; it had not even closed during the 1918 flu epidemic. All of the United employees recovered, and the funeral home reopened for business on Christmas Day, Dec. 25th.

NEMiss.News wishes all of its readers a Happy and Improved New Year! 

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