What does the city wish for now?

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 19, 2009

In November of 2006, the Natchez mayor and board of aldermen were making wishes and the wishes were coming true.

Like fairy godmothers in a fairy tale, leaders were looking to wave their wands to perform a little magic that only a half-a-million dollars could grant.

Seated around the City Hall conference room table, then-mayor Phillip West and other city leaders, including alderman Jake Middleton, nearly salivated over a $540,000 budget surplus that seemingly had fallen in their laps.

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Times were good. Sales tax revenues were up. The promise of new hotels, casinos and condos perfumed the air.

As leaders filed into the conference room, Mayor West hung a large sheet of paper from a metal easel. By the end of the meeting, nearly every inch of that piece of paper was filled with a long itemized list of pet projects. Dollar values were assigned. Before the afternoon was through, every penny of the surplus and more was spent.

It was just a wish list, city leaders stressed at the time. They took great pains to point out that not every wish would be granted — that priorities would have to be determined.

Yet that didn’t prevent the mayor or any one of the aldermen from piling dream on top of dream.

New tennis programs, a YMCA recreation complex, funding for an annexation study, a paid position at the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture topped the list.

These first items, totaling $292,000, were proposed by Mayor West. More than half the surplus was gone in the first fifteen minutes of the meeting.

It didn’t take much longer before the entire allotment of funds disappeared.

Duncan Park restrooms, mowing and maintenance equipment, two new trucks, a new street sweeper, a convention center marquee and parking lot were just a few of the wishes city aldermen made that afternoon.

More than $580,000 in wishes was made.

Nearly three years later, the city is now over the barrel, taking out loan after loan just to stay above water. Ironically, leaders borrowed this year a little less than the budget surplus they had in 2006.

In the world of politics, saving money is rarely an option.

A rainy day fund was not on the list. Holding onto funds that could be used in the event of a downturn or sudden emergency doesn’t buy votes.

Money in the bank just sits in a vault gathering dust. Providing a new program, a new building or a new improvement shows action — demonstrates progress.

A new street sweeper keeps voters’ neighborhoods clean. A tennis program teaches constituents’ children. A new parking lot gives residents greater access.

Nearly every item wished for in 2006 would have required regular upkeep and repairs. No consideration was given that afternoon to provide for such maintenance.

But times were good. The city coffers were flush. There was no indication that bad times were ahead — that city layoffs were inevitable.

There never is.

So city leaders wished for item after item until the money was gone.

Bet they wished they saved the money instead.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.