Vidalia lays off 14 employees

Published 12:10 am Thursday, August 23, 2012

VIDALIA — The Mississippi River has always played a defining role for the City of Vidalia, and the decision to lay off 14 employees and ask others to accept cuts is no different, Mayor Hyram Copeland said.

The mayor announced the personnel changes, which also include moving four full-time employees to part-time and asking four full-time employees to retire early, Wednesday, pointing to fluctuating levels on the Mississippi River during the past two years.

“This was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my political career, because it certainly wasn’t an easy task,” Copeland said. “I didn’t want to let anyone go, but we’ve been hurt economically through these natural disasters the last two years.”

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Other budget cuts — to travel, building utilities and gas for work vehicles — were made prior to Wednesday’s layoffs.

“Every facet of spending within the city was analyzed before this decision was made,” Copeland said. “We’ve cut down on extra spending and will continue to do so to pay our bills and our employees.”

The employees that were laid off will continue to work for the city until Sept. 1.

Those laid off were from five different city departments. The layoffs included:

• Four employees at the fire department.

• Four employees from the police department.

• Two employees from city hall.

• Two employees from the street and sanitation department.

• Two employees from the conference and convention center.

The four full-time employees switched to part-time employees were from various departments, Copeland said.

“We tried to start with areas that were non-essential, but it’s difficult because everything is essential to the city,” Copeland said. “It’s a complicated formula, but we tried to combine as much as we could so if we had two people in one area we combined that area.

“We have not jeopardized the safety of our citizens or the protection of our city.”

The four employees that will retire were on schedule to retire within the year, but Copeland said they would do so earlier than expected and within the next two months.

The city relies on three main sources of revenue to keep the town operating — the hydroelectric plant, sales tax and utilities, Copeland said.

The Sidney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station, located 40 miles from Vidalia, depends on the natural flow of the Mississippi River and an elevation drop at the Old River Control complex to generate power and electricity.

On Wednesday, 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.

Copeland said the hydro plant is currently operating at only 20 percent capacity because of the low river levels, which could cost the city approximately $4 million to $6 million in lost income.

In the city’s proposed budget for 2012-2013, total revenues listed under the “hydro fund,” totaled $14,600,000. A $10,500,000 utility service is also listed under hydro plant expenditures.

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

City Manager Ken Walker said the city pays 6 percent of the hydro plant’s operating bills and in turn the city receives 6 percent of the power produced which the city then sells to the Louisiana Energy and Power Authority.

“LEPA then supplies the amount of energy we need to supply to our customers,” Walker said. “We’re anticipating river levels continuing to drop, so the decisions made were focusing on what’s ahead.

“We’re trying to be prepared for what’s going to happen.”

Copeland said the high river levels of spring and summer 2011 impacted the city’s finances just as much as the low river levels.

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 its $1.8 million eligible funds by the end of the year.

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

“We’ve had two natural disasters in the past 15 months that have affected us tremendously,” Copeland said. “We couldn’t predict either of those disasters, so we just have to absorb those losses and continue operating.”

The city has a reserve fund for emergencies that typically fluctuates between $2.5 million and $4 million, but Copeland said the city has been using those funds to operate since the river levels began dropping.

Copeland said he is keeping open lines of communication with state and federal agencies and constituents to possibly receive grants to assist the city.

“I’ve been on the phone with just about every agency hoping that we could come up with some solutions to our monetary short-term crisis,” Copeland said. “We’re not going bankrupt, but this is a very serious situation.”

The city’s 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 full-time employees.

Under the 2011-2012 budget, 22 city employees took home annual salaries of more than $50,000.

Another 36 employees made between $40,000 and $50,000.