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Last casino check ready for city

NATCHEZ — The last check for the remaining balance of the annual lease payment for Magnolia Bluffs Casino is in the bank, and city officials are ready to sit down and make a long-term plan for the money.

Magnolia Bluffs Casino representatives will present a ceremonial check for $350,000, the final payment of their first $1 million lease annual payment, to the Natchez Board of Aldermen at its Tuesday meeting.

The casino actually paid the last installment to the city mid-December, City Clerk Donnie Holloway said.

The $1 million has been paid over several years, Holloway said, with the first $100,000 paid in 2007 for securing the lease, then two lease extension payments of $50,000, nine monthly $50,000 payments from April-December 2012 and the final $350,000 payment.

Holloway said, as of Friday, approximately $481,000 remained of the $1 million. The money has been spent on a variety of things, Holloway said, including $59,000 to purchase Brumfield Apartments in January 2012, street overlay projects, attorney fees for casino lease negotiations, among other things.

A $125,000 inter-fund loan made from the money to pay for payroll and health insurance costs will be repaid, Holloway said.

Holloway said he could account for all but approximately $20,000 spent of the money. He said he could not access a server that contained a record of some of the expenditures made with the money.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said once the board of aldermen is able to see how the money has been spent, he would like to see a plan made for the remaining and future monies.

“Before we go on a spending spree, I would like to see us sit on it and give ourselves time to see if this year is going to be as good as last year,” he said.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith requested a work session to discuss plans for the money at a previous aldermen meeting. A plan to ensure the money is properly spent, Smith said, is the top priority.

Smith, Dillard, Ward 2 Alderman Ricky Gray and Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields all said having a plan in place is the first step.

The aldermen also said they believe repairing city streets should be one of the first projects for which the money is spent.

“Everybody knows we need to pay close attention to our streets,” Gray said. “There are numerous street needs in all of our wards, I could see that benefiting all of us.”

Smith and Dillard also stressed the importance of maintaining city properties and said they believed that would be a good use for some of the money.

Smith said she would also like to see the money used to get the city in such financial shape that it would not have a need for tax-anticipation loans.

The city has used tax-anticipation loans the past several years to cover payroll costs. The loans were paid back in March of each year after the city received ad valorem tax revenues.

“Some people don’t mind borrowing against anticipated tax revenues, but why do it if we can build up that money, and we don’t have to?” Smith said.

Mayor Butch Brown said there is a long list of needs on which the city could spend the $1 million lease payment it will receive from Magnolia Bluffs Casino each year.

The board of aldermen, Brown said, also needs to prioritize money coming in from the Cemetery Road oil well and proceeds from the sell of surplus property.

Dillard said it is estimated the city will make $28,000 a month from the oil well.

The aldermen recently voted to sell 15.4 acres behind Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center to the Worley Family Trust for $192,000. The sale of the land is contingent upon approval of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which must have the opportunity to conduct an impact study on the property.

The city is also expected to sell Brumfield Apartments to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church’s nonprofit housing development organization.

Brown agrees that the city needs to carefully think through how the new money will be spent.

“I don’t want to just start committing it from day one,” Brown said. “I want us to think this thing through and program it and get the biggest bang for our buck,” he said.