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City discusses setting up rainy day fund with casino money

NATCHEZ — A motion by a Natchez alderman to put the $350,000 the city recently received from Magnolia Bluffs Casino in a certificate of deposit prompted a somewhat tense discussion at Tuesday’s Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made a motion to put money into a short-term CD until the board could finalize a plan for the money.

Dillard included in his motion that the money in the CD and any interest earned could not be accessed without the approval of the board of aldermen.

The funds are the final payment of the casino’s $1 million annual lease payment. Casino President Kevin Preston and casino staff presented a ceremonial check for the money to the board at the meeting prior to the discussion.

The board ultimately decided to table the topic in a motion made by Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis until a work session could be scheduled to discuss a plan for the casino money, as well as planned revenue from the Cemetery Road oil well.

Dillard noted that the city has its first opportunity in a long time to set up a rainy day fund.

Mathis said she wanted to make sure if the money was put in a CD, it could be accessed in case of an emergency.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith questioned whether the city should get some kind of financial consultation before deciding what to do with the money.

Mayor Butch Brown added that he and the board of aldermen have not had a meeting to determine what to do with the casino lease money. Brown discouraged the aldermen from voting for the motion and said he did not think it was appropriate for the board to make decisions on what to do with the money without having discussed it.

“We don’t need to be jumping up here and making investment decisions (without having had a meeting to discuss it),” Brown said.

Brown said the board of aldermen is a legislative body, not an executive or administrative body.

“For this board to come and start restricting the use of funds is hamstringing the operations of the city,” he said.

Brown said if the city’s administration had to come before the board for approval on every item of city business, it would slow the operation of the city.

Dillard countered by asking what authority the board of aldermen has if it does not have the authority to oversee the city’s finances.

Brown said the board has the prerogative to question the use of the city’s money.

“It does not have or should it have the (right) to tell this city administration how to operate its business,” Brown said.

Dillard also expressed frustration that the city could not account for the portion of the $1 million lease payment that has already been spent.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway said last week approximately $481,000 remained of the $1 million that the casino has paid over several years.

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.

Holloway told Dillard at the meeting that he had a report prepared for Dillard that outlined how the money has been spent.

Mathis said that any discussion about the city’s finances should be done in the aldermen’s open finance meeting prior to the regular meeting. Any information the city clerk can provide that relates to those discussions should also be provided to the aldermen in the finance meeting, Mathis said.

Brown agreed and said bringing up such discussions before the board has had time to communicate on them shows disjointed communication between city officials. Brown also pledged that the city’s operations would be transparent and promised that Dillard would receive any information requested about city business.

In other news from the meeting:

-Community Development Director James Johnston informed the board that a developer from Houston, Texas, has toured and is interested in purchasing and developing the old general hospital and Brumfield Apartments.

New Hope Missionary Baptist Church’s nonprofit housing development program has also expressed interest in the Brumfield property, and Brown had previously indicated the city was close to closing the deal with New Hope.

-City Attorney Hyde Carby told the board he hopes to have an ordinance prepared for the board to vote on at its next meeting regarding the city’s proposed environmental court, which will hear violations for nuisance properties, abandoned vehicles, littering and similar offenses. The court will operate similar to traffic court with Tony Heidelberg serving as municipal court judge pro tem.

-The board adjudicated 45 lots determined to be public nuisances or house dangerous structures at the request of community improvement specialist Anita Smith.

-The board awarded the contract for the construction of Phase II-B of the North Natchez Drainage Project to Midway Construction Midway for $643,319.

The board also awarded the contract for construction, engineering and inspection services for Phase II-B of the project to Volkert Inc. for an amount not to exceed $75,356.

-The board recognized the Old South Trading Post as the business of the month for January.

Trading Post owner Jonathan Wood announced that the trading post will be relocating. The city is currently in the process of obtaining funding to renovate the former railroad depot building, which houses the Old South Trading Post and the Cock of the Walk restaurant. City officials have said the city cannot receive federal monies to renovate the historic building if it houses for-profit business.

-The board granted approval to the Pro-Life Natchez-Adams County group at the request of Virginia O’Beirne to temporarily place 40 crosses on the bluff. The group places the crosses on the bluff each year, O’Beirne said, to promote pro-life awareness in the community.