° empty

City argues over casino money

NATCHEZ — The mayor had to break a 1-1 vote Tuesday after two aldermen voted in opposition to each other and the remaining four did not vote to approve a routine request from the city clerk’s office.

Mayor Butch Brown cast a vote to approve the clerk’s docket of expenditures and transfers after request was held up by the low-vote deadlock.

Though he ultimately voted to approve the docket, Alderman Dan Dillard raised the first voice of discontent before City Clerk Donnie Holloway ever asked the aldermen to formally approve the docket.

Dillard said he was concerned about the use of funds generated by the city’s lease to Magnolia Bluffs Casino. The aldermen had previously passed a motion requiring that the lease funds be placed in a separate account and the aldermen explicitly approve their use.

“If this money goes into the general fund, it gets so diluted into so many different directions it can almost not be accounted for,” Dillard said. “The taxpayer is going to say the casino gave you almost $1 million, and what did you do with it, and I am not sure I can say.”

Dillard questioned Holloway about several transfers out of the account, and Holloway responded the funds were used to pay for police cars and the taxes the city owed on the Brumfield school property, among other things.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the board wanted the funds dedicated so the city could eventually have funds to make capital improvements without having to borrow money.

“If we bond it out, by the time we pay the bonds off on fixing the street repairs, then the streets will need to be repaired again,” she said.

Dillard later said he would like to see the city establish a rainy day fund with money generated by the casino’s lease payments.

Brown told Dillard that if the aldermen accept the clerks’ docket during a meeting, the transfers contained in it have been brought before them and they are approving it. Dillard and Holloway disagreed back and forth about if transfers or interfund loans out of the casino lease money had been listed on past dockets.

“It is not practical for every expense of this city, when you have a budget and it has been approved, to have the clerk come to this board and ask for approval,” Brown said.

Dillard responded that Brown was mischaracterizing what the aldermen were requesting.

“We are not asking for every fund, we are asking for this one fund,” he said.

The aldermen ultimately voted to rename the fund and associated bank accounts into which the casino lease money is being placed from “public properties 2” to “casino annual lease fund.”

When Holloway later asked the aldermen to approve the docket, Alderman Rickey Gray said he had concerns about several expenses listed and that he had not been given adequate explanation when he asked about them.

“If there is something in this docket that needs to be paid back, the mayor doesn’t have to pay it back, the clerk does not have to pay them back, we do,” Gray said.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery asked if it was possible for someone to enter the clerk’s office and tell Holloway to put a $1,000 charge on the docket.

“If somebody else puts it in without the board’s approval, how can we be responsible?” he asked. “You would think somebody would tell us what they are doing.”

Gray asked about several specific expenses in the list, including cleaning costs for city buildings, a charge for plumbing and other services. Brown eventually told Gray that if he has problems with expenses on the report in the future, he can bring them to the mayor’s office.

During the discussion, Gray asked if he could vote against specific items on the docket because he did not want to approve them. Holloway responded that Gray did not have to vote in favor of the docket.

When the matter came to a vote, Fortenbery voted against approving the docket, while Dillard voted for it. The remaining aldermen did not cast a vote, and Brown broke the tie.

Later in the meeting, Brown announced that the city had hired two certified public accountants.

“We are postured now to make a big difference in our recordkeeping and our bookkeeping and the things that need to be kept accountable with the help of good, qualified people,” he said.

In other news:

-The board voted to declare a 15.5-acre parcel associated with the Margaret Martin school property to be surplus city property.

The Martin school property has two parcels of land associated with it, Brown said, the one that was declared surplus and a 5-acre parcel on which the school building sits.

The 15.5-acre section that was declared surplus is composed of gullies, bayous and a former football field, Brown said.

The city has a potential buyer for the surplus property, he said, and the first steps to selling it are getting the property declared surplus and then having it appraised.

-The aldermen voted to give Brown the authority to negotiate with Waste Pro and Waste Management for garbage pickup services and to negotiate with Riverbend Environmental Services and Waste Management for waste disposal services.

After the negotiations are complete, the mayor will bring the proposals from the companies to the aldermen for final approval, board attorney Hyde Carby said.

-The board met in executive session to discuss employee performance and economic development.