Aldermen discuss ways to prevent future financial problems

Published 12:36 am Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Natchez Democrat

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Members of the Natchez Board of Aldermen say they won’t pass a budget Tuesday that includes raises for several employees.

The raises, which represent nearly $29,000 in the proposed $37.7 million budget, were agreed upon by Mayor Butch Brown and four city department heads, but were never brought before the board, according to city leaders.

Discussions of the raises and other line items in the budget — including freezing the purchasing of nearly $200,000 in equipment for two departments — were brought up during a public hearing earlier this week. While no official action was taken at the hearing, city leaders expressed concern about the budget being passed in time for the city to make payroll on Oct. 15.

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The budget was due Oct. 1, but legal advertising requirements delayed its adoption, and the city can’t legally spend money until the budget is adopted.

That example of miscommunication between the board and the city’s administrative team, as well as a lack of reliable financial reports, are what members of the board say must be corrected now to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Pointing the finger?

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she doesn’t want to start assigning blame for this year’s situation.

“At this point we are going to have to decide what we are going to do,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “This board does not deal with day-to-day operations of city government, we basically deal with hires and department heads, and it tends to allow us to be out of the loop.”

Alderman Rickey Gray said the board has a previously adopted budget process that the city government has not followed this year.

“The budget process we adopted tells you, ‘From April, you do this; from May, you do this,’ and it tells you all the way through September,” Gray said. “Each department head is supposed to meet with the board, mayor and clerk, and we are not doing that anymore.”

Alderwoman Sarah Smith said one of the problems that delayed this year’s budget has been a scarcity of reliable information.

“We have not been getting the kind of reports we have requested,” she said. “We need a better idea of where we are financially — our year-to-date numbers are only through July, so to me that is an issue when we don’t know what has come in through August and September.”

Alderman Tony Fields said board members simply cannot make informed decisions on budgetary items without proper reports.

“I don’t think we’ve been given accurate numbers, and that’s something that needs to be addressed before anything can be done,” Fields said. “We can do all the things we’ve been doing, but without accurate numbers we’ll never know what’s going right and what’s not.”

Alderman Mark Fortenbery said he believes overspending throughout the year by Brown’s administration has led to the board needing to resolve budget situations in a pinch.

“For years we worked so hard to get our budget way down and now it seems like it’s skyrocketed, and I’m not sure why,” Fortenbery said. “It seems like there’s a lot of asking for forgiveness instead of permission when it comes to spending, and we can’t operate like that.

“We have to all be together on the same page, because we’ve basically been thrown a set of numbers and been told, ‘Here, you have to figure all this out.’”

Alderman Dan Dillard said he believes several departments are overspending their budget and relying on transfers from other funds to supplement the overspending.

“The question is going to be if this administration can tell the public with confidence it can perform its duties and provide the services to the taxpayers with the money it is allotted and not incur a deficit,” Dillard said. “The administration should have no other answer besides, ‘Yes.’”