Figures paint detailed picture of city, county debt

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2003

With interest rates falling like summer rain, refinancing of city and county debt has been in the headlines quite a bit this year, which begs the question &045; how much debt are we in?

The answer: $30,180,000 for Natchez and $16,665,189 for Adams County, not including interest, compared

to $16.69 million and $12 million five years ago.

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For the City of Natchez, that includes $12 million in bonds issued to build and furnish the Natchez Convention Center, which opened last year.

The city also took out $1.4 million in bonds to pay for the property on which the center sits.

In addition, the city took out $10.85 million in bonds in 1994 to pay for water and sewer improvements.

Refinancing of existing debt, leasing of equipment and a $900,000 issue for renovation of Memorial Hall as a federal courthouse make up the rest of the city’s debt.

But such figures don’t tell the whole story, according to City Clerk Donnie Holloway. &uot;Not all of that (debt) counts toward our limit,&uot; he said.

By &uot;limit,&uot; he was referring to the state-set ceiling on how much debt cities and counties can take on &045; an amount equal to 15 percent of the assessed value of properties in the city or county.

Revenue bonded debt, such as the bonds used to fund the convention center building project, the federal courthouse and water and sewer improvements, doesn’t count toward that limit.

According to the latest figures from the City Clerk’s Office, that leaves Natchez $14.9 million away from its debt limit.

Adams County, meanwhile, is approximately $10.33 million away from its debt ceiling, with more than $16.665 million in outstanding debt.

Much of that amount is made up of smaller debts, such as the lease-purchasing of road equipment, firefighting equipment and sheriff’s vehicles, and making improvements to public facilities such as the county courthouse.

Such smaller debts total more than $3.9 million. In addition, $900,000 was borrowed for the federal courthouse.

But in a breakdown of county debt provided by financial analyst Demery Grubbs, who spearheaded both the city and county’s refinancing efforts, some larger projects do stand out.

Those include:

4A 1999 issue for the Adams County Juvenile Detention Center, at $3.9 million.

4Bond issues in 1999 and 2002, a total of $1.767 million, to finance energy efficiency measures with consultants Johnson Controls.

4A total of $4.25 million for improvements to the Natchez-Adams County Port.

4A bond refinancing done in 2002, which amounted to $4.57 million.

Marty Wiseman, director of John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said the taking on of such major projects becomes a concern if a city or county gets close to its debt ceiling.

&uot;When it gets to that point, if a city or county had a project they thought would benefit the people, they might not have the room left to do it,&uot; Wiseman said.

No doubt the city and county will have to take on some debt in the future, as equipment deteriorates due to age and use.

But at the same time, the area’s economic future &045; and therefore, tax revenues &045; are uncertain due to the closing of International Paper and other industries.

With that in mind, both Holloway and County Administrator Charlie Brown said they don’t see the city and county taking on any more major debt any time soon.