Natchez aldermen approve hiring freeze

Published 1:18 am Wednesday, September 23, 2015

NATCHEZ — Moments before the city clerk requested $250,000 Tuesday night to cover payroll, the Natchez Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to eliminate new hiring or raises for six months.

“Until (Assistant City Clerk) Wendy (McClain) has an adequate understanding of our finances, we need a hiring and raise freeze until we, as a board, feel comfortable (with the budget),” said Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith, who presented the motion for the freeze to the board.

Smith and the rest of the board sat silent in apparent disbelief when minutes later City Clerk Donnie Holloway requested $250,000 to cover payroll expenses through the end of the month, the second such request he has made in less than a month.

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Holloway requested to borrow up to $350,000 to cover payroll expenses last month at the board’s Aug. 26 meeting.

Holloway’s request Tuesday came after the board had concluded a discussion about getting a better handle on the city’s finances, starting with the hiring freeze.

Any new hires or raises, Smith said, would have to go before the board of aldermen for approval.

The goal of the board appeared to be more oversight from the aldermen on new hires and raises. Smith alluded to the board of aldermen only learning about hires and raises after they have been implemented in the past.

Smith also asked that the city’s personnel department complete an analysis of city employees’ salaries and overtime pay for the board’s review.

Mayor Butch Brown expressed disappointment with the six-month provision added to Smith’s motion for the freeze. Brown went on to say that he did not believe the freeze nor recent budget cuts proposed by the aldermen were needed.

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery questioned Brown about whether the proposed 2015-2016 budget, scheduled to be adopted by the board next week, had raises the aldermen did not approve.

Fortenbery said if those concerns were not resolved, the mayor could run into some “trouble” getting the budget adopted.

“I’m just giving you the heads-up,” Fortenbery said to Brown.

Brown said he did not know of any raises in the proposed budget about which the aldermen did not already know.

Fortenbery expressed alarm at borrowing more money, and Dillard suggested the city make an interfund loan from its casino annual lease fund instead of taking out a loan.

“Let’s do that, because I’m not going to the bank,” Fortenbery said.

“I keep hearing, ‘We’ve got all this money, we’ve got all this money — but where is it?’” Fortenbery asked Brown with his hands raised in the air.

Fortenbery was pointing to Brown’s prior mention that Brown predicted the city would have a $2 million surplus in the overall budget for the next fiscal year.

The new hiring freeze excludes hiring within the police and fire departments, and any replacement or part-time hires.

Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray suggested the city exclude emergency responders from the freeze.

Natchez Fire Chief Danny White and Natchez Fire Department Chief Aaron Wesley said both of their departments are understaffed.

White said he was working on hiring two new officers, and Wesley said he needed three more employees.

The freeze comes in light of the board approaching its Oct. 1 deadline to adopt the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget.

“I don’t know why this is a reoccurring problem,” Brown said. “I spend half my time going back and trying to figure it all out.”

The $250,000 inter-fund loan the board approved Tuesday will come out of the city’s annual $1 million Magnolia Bluffs Casino lease payments.

McClain said the lease payments fund currently has approximately $800,000.

Like Smith and Fortenbery, Dillard said the fact the city needs $250,000 on the doorstep of a new budget year should cause alarm.

“I think this should have a very sobering effect on the board,” Dillard said.

“We have some serious financial management issues.”

In other news:

4Natchez resident Leola Seals requested the city look into raising funds for a swimming pool at the North Natchez Youth Center.

Seals asked for the board’s support with a campaign to raise $1 million for updates at the center.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the board would consider Seals’ request, but it first needed to include the county and Natchez Adams School District Board of Trustees in on any recreation talks.

“Where we are right now is kind of at a standstill,” Arceneaux-Mathis said of building a public swimming pool in Natchez. “I was ready to turn dirt (on a pool) last year.”

City Attorney Hyde Carby said the city is scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to go over its inter-local recreation agreement with the county.

4Smith requested that the board allocate $2,400 in next year’s budget for maintenance costs at the Bridge of Sighs over Roth Hill and the surrounding bluff area.

Smith said the Natchez Community Alliance developed a landscaping plan for the Bridge of Sighs, and the alliance had invested a lot of time and money in the bluff’s aesthetics.

“I think it’s our responsibility to do our part on this,” she said.

Dillard echoed Smith.

“I think the bluff area has turned into a really beautiful place, and (the maintenance plan) will add to that,” he said.

The board voted unanimously for the maintenance funds allocation.

4Arceneaux-Mathis expressed interest in moving forward with switching from appointed to elected school Natchez Adams County board members.

“I think we need to go forth with the fact that we are going to pursue an elected school board,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.

Currently, the city and county school board includes three city-appointed members.

“We are getting into a new millennium, and we need to act like we are in a new millennium,” Arceneaux-Mathis said of the current school board makeup.