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November 26, 2020

A Mississippi city repossessed its auditorium after a church allegedly missed years of rent payments

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez has retaken possession of the Natchez City Auditorium after reportedly months and months gone by without receiving rent from a church that had leased the building.

The city and previous lessee, Ridgeland-based ChristLife Church, have had differing opinions over what constitutes compensation for the lease under their agreement, which the two sides reached in 2013.

Though the agreement stipulated that the church would pay $1,500 a month to rent the auditorium, City Clerk Megan Edmonds said those payments have not been received for “several years.”

The debate has largely revolved around whether certain sorts of renovations, repairs or additions to the auditorium should count toward the church’s rent.

Edmonds said based on her estimates, the church has submitted invoices and payments for approximately $70,000.

“If we gave full credit for all of that, they would not owe any rent,” Edmonds said.

Of that figure, however, she said approximately $50,000 of what the church has claimed as valid payments is questionable.

Some examples of these potentially ineligible forms of payment include the purchase of audio and video equipment and putting in a kitchen, which Edmonds said benefited the church rather than the auditorium, in her opinion.

Though Edmonds said she would consider some invoices valid, such as for painting and repairing the auditorium’s air-conditioning unit, the decision about how much of that approximately $70,000 is valid ultimately falls upon the city.

“At this point, it’s really going to be up to the board (of aldermen) to decide what they consider eligible or not,” Edmonds said.

The city had been reviewing the circumstances of the agreement with ChristLife for the past few months behind closed doors, citing potential litigation. Though City Attorney Bob Latham said the city had planned to pursue a lawsuit to terminate the contract on the grounds of non-adherence, the situation reached a breaking point in late January before that could happen.

The church reportedly backed out of the agreement and moved its operations out of the auditorium.

“It was interesting, because at least it solved the problem of litigating the termination of the contract,” Latham said.

Still, once the aldermen decide what they deem has been settled and what remains indebted to them, Latham said the city could at that point pursue legal action to recover the money.

Latham also said some of the payment claims had been for equipment that the church removed, bolstering his belief that the city would be able to claim that they are owed further rent.

“I think they’ll end up owing rent once they pull all this equipment out (of the accounting),” Latham said.

Though the issue appears to date back a few years, the board only recently ramped up the discussion pertaining to the missing rent.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the due rent for the auditorium had not been on her radar until the last few months.

But amid all of the discussion amongst city officials, she said, the aldermen and the church have had in-person interactions with church representatives regarding the matter.

“Several months ago, I suggested we get them in (to discuss the matter),” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “I do not understand why we have not been able to get the pastor or whoever is the business person for the church in.”

When the issue came up during a Jan. 13 regular meeting, Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier expressed incredulity when Edmonds told him several years had gone by since the aldermen collected rent from the auditorium.

As of October 2017, Edmonds said records reflected that the church had owed a total of approximately $78,000, with approximately $21,000 having been received. She also said approximately $20,000 of rent had come from the church toward the beginning of the two parties’ contract.

While how the fallout from the collapsed lease will play out remains to be seen, no indications about future use of the auditorium have been expressed thus far.

The most recent agenda for Tuesday’s regular aldermen meeting contained no item pertaining to the auditorium as of Saturday evening.

Representatives for ChristLife Church could not be reached for comment.

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