Vidalia looking at layoffs, hoping to find alternatives

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, August 22, 2012

VIDALIA — Several City of Vidalia employees could be laid off as early as today after several weeks of discussing alternatives has left city officials with no other option, they say.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said he has been meeting with city officials, department heads and employees for several weeks discussing alternatives to the layoffs.

“I’m doing everything I can to hopefully alleviate the worst outcome,” Copeland said. “People are going to hear that we’re laying people off, but the exact amount of how many people hasn’t been decided.”

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Copeland said he would be exploring every option — including talking to federal and state agencies — before making a decision today regarding employee layoffs.

“We’re taking this on a day-to-day basis, because I keep getting new information every day that is helpful and could change our minds,” Copeland said. “The decision we make will naturally affect the entire town.”

Copeland refrained from discussing any exact details of the number of employees being laid off or exact reasons until today, but did mention the river’s effect on the city playing a role.

“Within 15 months, we’ve gone though two major disasters,” Copeland said. “We went from a record 500-year flood to a drought within that short amount of time.

“The last time the drought was this bad up and down the Mississippi River was 70 years ago.”

Alderman Tron McCoy said that the mayor and other city officials approached the board with the city’s dilemma several months ago looking for any other options besides the obvious.

“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of months because we’ve been running the city very carefully for the past couple of months, but we’ve reached our wits end on little solutions to fix a big problem,” McCoy said. “We’re going through some tough financial times right now, and I don’t think there’s ever a good time to lay off people, but the decision had to be made.

“This is the toughest decision that we’ve had to make since I’ve been an alderman.”

In June, the Vidalia Board of Aldermen approved the city’s proposed 2013 budget with approximately $4,000 less in spending than last year’s budget.

The 2012-2013 budget included $32 million in expected expenditures, which included $8.2 million in personal services for salaries and wages, insurance and employee benefits.

The 2011-2012 budget allocated $8.3 million in personal services, which included approximately $5.9 million for the city’s 181 fulltime employees.

In the newest proposed budget, total revenues listed under the “hydro fund,” which are monies generated from the Sidney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station, totaled $14,600,000. A $10,500,000 utility service is listed in the hydro plant expenditures.

The hydro plant, located 40 miles from Vidalia, relies on the natural flow of the Mississippi River and an elevation drop at the Old River Control complex to generate power and electricity.

On Tuesday, the river level at Natchez was 9.1 feet, but levels are forecasted to drop to as low as 7 feet by mid September, according to the National Weather Service.

Those hydro revenue funds make up 46 percent of the total $31,502,650 in expected revenues for the city.

“The hydro plant plays a tremendous part in what we do daily in the City of Vidalia,” McCoy said. “When the hydro plant is not functioning at 100 percent, we do have difficulties in the city.”

Last year when the river rose to 61.9 feet, the city spent $2.5 million in flood prevention and recovery.

The city had received $952,325 of reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in May, and hoped to receive the remainder of it’s $1.8 million eligible funds by the end of the year.

FEMA will reimburse only 75 cents for every dollar the city spent.

The 2012 budget allocated $4,944,000 in capital projects for the new 30,000-square foot Vidalia municipal complex.

The complex was completed earlier this year, and the 2012-2013 budget only allocates $80,000 for capital projects.

“With the economy being so tough, we need to monitor our budget and make sure we have the right amount to meet the expenses of the city,” City Manager Ken Walker said during the June budget meeting.

But the completion of the municipal complex also means the city must start paying the $6.94 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that will be paid out over 40 years to finance the complex.

The new loan payment totals a $150,000 increase in the budget’s debt service category.

Rumors throughout the community after department head and employee meetings suggested as many as 30 to 50 employees would lose their jobs.

“I’m still not 100 percent sure on what we’re going to do, but 50 people is not the case,” Copeland said. “If you sit down to talk to three people in a room and make a statement, by the time they leave the room all three of them are going to have a different story of what just happened.

“I can’t stop people from talking, but we’re trying to not take any drastic actions that we don’t have to.”

Attempts to reach other aldermen were unsuccessful.