Public demands budget explanations

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NATCHEZ — Of the approximately 20 people who attended the fiscal year 2010 budget public hearing Tuesday, none were interested in hearing City Clerk Donnie Holloway recite numbers line by line.

They wanted to know the story behind the numbers, questioning Mayor Jake Middleton and the Natchez Board of Aldermen on whether they will lower or raise millage, the likelihood of city layoffs and what citizens can do to help.

“The numbers are great and all, but the budget is in the details,” business owner A.E. “Bubber” Zuccaro said. “I have a budget, and your budget is going to screw the hell out of my budget.”

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Holloway presented $30,622,671 in projected total revenues and $30,518,593 in projected total expenditures, leaving the city with $104,078 in savings.

When asked about the board’s decision on millage, Middleton said it is a question the board must answer.

“At this time, we’re looking to keep millage as it is,” Middleton said.

If the board decides to increase millage, due to a state-mandated property reassessment, taxpayers will pay more ad valorem taxes on their home, automobile tag, utilities, business fixtures and equipment and rental real property.

The audience wondered why the city cannot lower its current 42.732 millage rate if the reassessed value of one mill has increased from $104,000 to $116,152.

Dr. Kenneth Stubbs, an internal medicine physician, said raising millage is “definitely a bad enticer of new business.”

In 2007, Stubbs said he paid 16 percent of the assessed value of his office building in taxes, before the state-mandated property reassessment. Stubbs’ colleagues in Rankin County are paying 11 percent of the assessed value, and in Madison County 10 percent of the assessed value.

“I’m paying 5-and-a-half percent more for an office building in the city limits, which I find surprising,” Stubbs said. “It’s sizably more than other counties in the state of Mississippi.

“This is what people look at when they’re coming into our community. Tax is critical, and we have the highest tax structures in the state. Reassessments do mean a great deal to us who have property.”

Alderman Dan Dillard, in response to Stubbs, said the city’s millage rate is the lowest among Adams County and the Natchez-Adams School District.

Alderman James “Ricky” Gray said the city has only raised taxes twice over the last decade, which is partly to blame for the city’s financial predicament.

“We just got an opportunity to get out of debt, and we’re not trying to hurt anybody in the community,” Gray said. “It’s hard for the city to compete and keep city services without raising taxes.

“If we don’t do something right now, we’re not going to be able to pave the streets, we can’t do nothing.”

Stubbs suggested Middleton and the board trim the budget further, examining unneeded city jobs.

“We don’t really need and extra person here and an assistant here,” Stubbs said.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis and Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields said the board is seriously considering job cuts. A final decision will be announced during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday.

“Honestly I thought we did something last year, and truthfully we didn’t do much,” Fields said. “Sixty percent of our budget is salaries, and this board is definitely addressing that. If we’re going to make a dent in this, we have to address salary.”

Mathis said the board is also considering consolidating city departments to provide efficient services.

“This is a small town and there’s a lot of redundancy in government,” Mathis said. “Everyone has their own little turf and we need to start crashing down these turfs and bring people together. We can consolidate public works and engineering. We can consolidate planning and inspections.”

Middleton reminded the audience the budget is a forecast, and his hopes are for the city to be in sound financial shape by 2012.

“We can’t keep running on borrowed money and provide the services you expect of us,” Middleton said. “We’re going to make it. I promise you we are.”

The board was to adopt the budget Tuesday, but received a one-week extension from the state auditor’s office. The board will adopt the budget during its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the City Hall Chambers on Pearl Street.