Public rarely comes to city budget meetings

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 13, 2009

One voice was lost in the budget debate among the Natchez Board of Aldermen these past two weeks.

The voice of the Natchez citizen went unheard because no one showed up.

“People usually don’t come to the meetings,” said City Clerk Donnie Holloway. “They need to come in to see what the city’s doing, how we’re paying the budget and know what’s going on with taxpayer’s dollars.”

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Budget meetings are open to the public, as are all regular and special meetings of the board. Holloway said the public’s absence might have more to do with lack of information than budget apathy.

“We’re open until we have to go into executive session to discuss personnel, contracts or something like that,” Holloway said. “We have public meetings for people to make their comments about what they expect out of the city and make sure we’re spending their money wisely.”

The public will have a final opportunity to speak on the budget at 5 p.m. Tuesday, when the board holds a public hearing at the City Council Chambers on Pearl Street. Tuesday is also the board’s deadline to adopt the budget.

The board will likely field comments and questions on the possibility of layoffs and whether the city will lower or raise millage due to a state mandated property tax reassessment. If the board decides to increase millage, taxpayers will pay more ad valorem taxes on their home, automobile tag, utilities, business fixtures and equipment and rental real property. The city’s current millage rate is 42.732.

The city last raised taxes in 2006, when the board decided to levy and allocate millage for the Natchez-Adams Economic Development Authority and George W. Armstrong Library. The board also raised taxes in 2000 for bond and interest debt service requirements.

The city is currently operating on a projected budget revenue of $22,840,268. Of that amount, $4,371,440 is obtained through ad valorem taxes. Actual budget numbers for the 2008-2009 fiscal year will become available after Sept. 30.

The city’s projected budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year is $21,842,852. Of that amount, $4,942,597 is obtained through ad valorem taxes.

Holloway said the city is bracing itself for drops in sales tax and gaming tax. The city projected $5,569,294 in sales tax revenues last year. This year, the city’s forecast is $5.3 million. The city projects $140,000 in gaming taxes this year, down from $160,000 last year.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said Tuesday’s hearing will allow the board and the public to comb through the budget penny by penny and sort the needs from the wants one last time.

“We need to go through the budget line by line,” Mathis said.

Alderman James “Ricky” Gray agrees with Mathis and strongly encourages public participation. Though the board must vote to adopt the budget Tuesday, Gray said the public’s feedback is better late than never.

“If they’ve got any concerns about how their money is being spent, they should come to the hearing,” Gray said. “You shouldn’t wait until the last minute.”