City officials defend proposed tax increase

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 2, 2000

Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce Vice President Fred Middleton opened Friday’s meeting on a proposed city tax increase with a prayer for the city’s leaders.

&uot;They put themselves in the arena where they have to make difficult decisions,&uot; Middleton said.

With difficult decisions came difficult questions from chamber members — such as why repair a port road when the port is losing money? How do Natchez’s tax rates compare with other cities? And why not hire a city manager?

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Ward 3 Alderwoman and former chamber president Sue Stedman and City Clerk Donnie Holloway attempted to answer those and other concerns raised at the chamber’s First Friday breakfast meeting — but with strict groundrules. Following a disruptive Board of Aldermen meeting last week, organizers of Friday’s meeting required all questions to be written on notecards and said only questions about the preliminary budget — which includes a planned 22-percent increase in ad valorem taxes — would be taken.

&uot;We are on the cusp of a lot of things here,&uot; Stedman said.

&uot;We can either go forward or backward, and in the world today, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting left behind.&uot;

To illustrate what a 7.428-mill increase in city ad valorem taxes would mean to homeowners, Stedman distributed a chart tracking the amount paid in property taxes for a random list of homes since 1985.

Part of the reduction can be attributed to homeowners turning 65 and being exempted from property taxes.

With many people paying less in property taxes, how is the city bringing in more money every year?

Stedman said the vast majority of ad valorem taxes come from commercial development, which has grown in the last 15 years, the last time city taxes were raised.

At that time, the aldermen raised the city’s millage from 25.435 to 33.033 to compensate for a state ordinance that lowered the rate at which residential properties are taxed from 15 to 10 percent.

&uot;(The city) reacted, naturally, to that by increasing taxes,&uot; Stedman said.

The planned increase for fiscal year 2000-01 is 7.428 mills, and Stedman reminded the meeting’s attendees that the mayor and aldermen are still looking at all possible alternatives to passing the increase.

Using colored pie charts, Holloway explained where the city gets its money and how it spends it. More than 50 percent of the city’s revenue comes from sales taxes, compared to 18 percent from property taxes.

&uot;As you can see, we depend on sales tax,&uot; Holloway said, urging attendees to spend their money within the city.

Stedman took the first written question about the need for the rebuilding of Government Fleet Road.

On Tuesday, city officials received word that a state Department of Economic and Community Development grant application for the project was approved.

The DECD grant combined with a $1.5 million Department of Transportation grant leaves the city responsible for $55,000 and the county has appropriated $85,000.

Stedman said the project is needed not only for economic development, but to improve safety for travellers on the narrow road.

&uot;If nothing else, it will be safer for our citizens,&uot; she said.

Stedman and Holloway both said they are in favor of consolidating the two local governments, but there is no plan &uot;afoot&uot; to do so, Stedman said.

&uot;I feel like it would save several thousands of dollars in taxes,&uot; Holloway said.

Both officials also said they wanted to &uot;clear up&uot; any misconceptions about the Natchez Visitor Reception Center. &uot;Listen to me,&uot; Holloway said. &uot;There is no funds for the visitor center being paid for with taxpayers’ money.&uot;

The center’s $800,000 budget is financed through revenue from food, beverage and lodging taxes, rent from state agencies and miscellaneous funds including bus fares and movie tickets, Holloway said.

Stedman joined in by answering related questions about financing for construction of the convention center, a federal courthouse and proposed Under-the-Hill development.

&uot;Yes, it will take a few years to realize (a return on the investment), and there are risks involved, but all of you who are in business understand risk,&uot; she said.

Above all, Stedman, Holloway and Middleton stressed the need for cooperation and consensus among government and citizen groups in order to move the city forward.

&uot;That’s what we’re confronted with,&uot; Middleton said. &uot;If we want economic development, we’re going to have to work together.&uot;