Natchez aldermen pass city budget with concerns

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NATCHEZ — A divided Natchez Board of Aldermen adopted a city budget Tuesday before unanimously rejecting a request from the city clerk to take out a tax anticipation loan.

The board members likewise passed a number of motions in apparent response to their displeasure with this year’s budgeting process and the way the city’s books have been presented to them.

The budget adoption came 14 days after it was due, and the city was not able to spend money without a budget in place for the current fiscal year. If the budget had not passed, the city government faced shutdown as payroll and bills became due in the second half of the month.

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The adopted budget calls for $36,292,750.27 in revenues and $33,621,583.08 in expenses, resulting in approximately $2.7 million in surplus.

During a public hearing last week, board members expressed concern about a number of issues in the proposed budget, and Mayor Butch Brown said his office consulted the minutes and video of the meeting in order to work with City Clerk Donnie Holloway to answer those objections.

“We started out $875,000 in the red in the general fund, and we have worked diligently to answer the questions and now have a surplus,” Brown said.

Brown said the budget would be reviewed in December and January to see if revisions were needed.

Prior to the adoption of the budget — which passed 4-2 with Alderman Dan Dillard and Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis dissenting — the board, especially Dillard, asked Holloway to clarify some of the budget reports.

In one instance, Dillard said the budget reflected the city’s bond payments had not been made.

When Holloway said it had been paid, Dillard responded, “Your most recent budget reports contradicts that you are saying it has been paid but it isn’t being reported as being paid.”

Dillard said the reports were “fraudulent.”

“They are not fraudulent,” Holloway said. “It was just a damn mistake.”

Holloway said his office has been working to get things corrected since hiring new people earlier this year.

Dillard later made a motion to have the city attorney contact all of the city’s bonding agents to get a schedule of bond payments and verify their current status. Alderwoman Sarah Smith asked if the motion was necessary if Holloway could provide the documentation the bond payments had been made.

“Are you calling me a liar?” Holloway asked Dillard. “I can provide you with anything you want.”

Alderman Ricky Gray seconded Dillard’s motion, but when the matter came to a vote they were the only board members who voted in favor.

Dillard also questioned Holloway about the apparent transfer of funds from the Magnolia Bluffs Casino lease payments account, an action the aldermen have previously required approval from the board for before it can be completed.

Dillard later made a motion that the board again adopt a resolution restricting the move of casino funds to board approval. Smith objected because the policy was in place, but Dillard said it was not working and the board should include specific clarifying language.

The motion passed without objection, as did another motion by Dillard to authorize the city attorney to contact the city’s banking service providers and request additional copies of all monthly banking statements.

Under the motion, the additional statements are to be presented to the board no later than the first regularly scheduled meeting of each month.

With the budget adopted, Gray pointed out this year the board had not followed its previously adopted budgeting process, which begins with policy discussions in May, followed by budget allocations and a public hearing in August before a Sept. 15 adoption date.

“Even though we did not follow it, we did adopt it,” Gray said. “I am going to move that we adopt it again.”

Gray’s motion passed unanimously.

Smith said she would like to see the board have a budget retreat next year.

“We need to take it up earlier than we did this year, where we come up with a three-year and a five-year plan of where we want to be,” she said.

Dillard responded to Smith’s suggestion by saying, “This Chinese fire drill is not going to happen again next year, we are not going to get to where we did this time. We are all adults and know when the deadlines are.”

During the meeting, Holloway also asked the board to approve an application for a tax-anticipation loan of $800,000. The loan would be paid back when the city starts receiving tax revenue after the New Year.

The request died on the table, however, because none of the aldermen offered a motion to approve it.

The issue is strictly cash flow, Holloway said after the meeting, and while the city can hope for revenue to come in during the last quarter of the year, he will likely bring the request to the board again next month.