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City to hire accounting group to review finances

NATCHEZ — City of Natchez leaders put a plan in motion Tuesday to hire an outside accounting group to review the city’s finances.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made the motion — which was ultimately unanimously approved — during Tuesday’s Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting.

Dillard said he felt the city’s bookkeeping had gotten to a point that prevented him — and taxpayers — from having a clear understanding of what the city’s financial state is.

Accounting firms will be considered for hire after City Clerk Donnie Holloway and staff create a needs assessment, which will include a detailed list of their expectations if an outside group were to be approved.  The assessment is required per city policy.

The accounting group would be hired for a six-month period.

Dillard began his financial questioning Tuesday about an interfund loan that was made from the city’s casino fund to the general fund.

He asked City Clerk Donnie Holloway if those funds would be paid back by the end of the fiscal year, to which Holloway answered “No.”

“If you can’t pay it back, that becomes a problem,” Holloway said. “That’s how they become forced transfers.”

Mayor Butch Brown said there was no intention of the loaned funds ending up as transfers and not being paid back to the casino fund.

“That’s the clerk’s opinion,” Brown said. “We do have more moneys coming in.”

Brown said the city’s collection of ad valorem taxes would help bring in additional funds to the general fund and that he felt some of Dillard’s comments were misleading.

“I know you’re bright enough to know we have money, it’s just in the wrong account,” Brown said. “It’s not in the general fund that pays the general fund obligations, but don’t mislead the public to make it appear we’re out of money.

“We have plenty of money, as evidence by the loans we’re making to ourselves.”

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said the city’s budget reports were becoming alarming.

“We’re way over on something, whether it’s travel or whatever,” Fortenbery said. “Somebody has made a big mistake, and as a board, I want to know who did this.”

Brown said the general fund is the city’s operating account and sometimes needs additional funds to help the city continue operating.

Dillard and Fortenbery said they feel money is too freely moved into the general fund

“City administration and the clerk’s office is a department like any other department, but it has the prerogative that if it doesn’t stay within budget it can take from whatever department or budget,” Dillard said.

At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Brown — who normally has no vote on the aldermen-led board — had to be the deciding vote per city code on a split decision vote to pay the city’s operating expenses, including payroll. The motion passed with Brown’s vote.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, Alderman Tony Fields and Fortenbery voted in favor of paying the expenses, while alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith, alderman Ricky Gray and Dillard voted against the motion.

“The question is do you shut down city government because you don’t have money in the right accounts or move money around on a loan basis so you can pay your operating costs?” Brown said before voting in favor and breaking the tie.

Smith said after the meeting she felt an outside accounting group could offer valuable temporary services to the city clerk’s office.

“I think they could come in for a temporary basis until we feel like we’re getting accurate reporting, but I would obviously not prefer it to be a long-term deal,” Smith said. “In a perfect world, (the city clerk’s office) would take over, because I think they’re capable of doing that it’s just they’ve had trouble having a handle on the finances for years.”

In other news from the meeting:

4The board unanimously designated the Forks of the Road site as a landmark site.

The application for landmark status of the Forks of the Road was made by the Friends of the Forks of the Road, the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Natchez National Historical Park.

City Planner Frankie Legaux said the application was for two parcels of the site, which the groups hope one day can become the home of interactive museums that tell the story of the second-largest slave market in the country.

“The designation as a landmark site would give it some degree of protection,” Legaux said. “If anyone came forward for development within 300 feet of the landmark site, the preservation commission would have the right to review it looking to see if it had any damage to the landmark site.”

The Forks of the Roads site meets three of the four criteria set by the Natchez Preservation Commission, Legaux said.

At least one is needed to qualify.

Getting grants and funding become easier after a property has been marked as a historic landmark, Legaux said.

The money can be used to add interpretive buildings, such as a museum.

The city’s designation Tuesday clears the way for the site to be considered for legislative approval to become a part of the Natchez National Historical Park.