Natchez aldermen voice budget concerns

Published 12:13 am Wednesday, December 16, 2015

NATCHEZ — Financial discussions dominated the City of Natchez’s Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday, with budget concerns coming up in reports from several city officials.

Deanne Tanksley with the Gillon Group, the city’s auditor, said significant progress had been made on the city’s 2013-2014 audit, which was due in June.

“I am working as quickly and as feverishly as I can on cleaning up the audit,” Tanksley said.

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The former city accountant left in the middle of the audit process, leaving many questions unanswered, Tanksley said.

Assistant City Clerk Wendy McClain said the clerk’s office would be keeping monthly records in the future to avoid audit delays next year.

“If we do it monthly instead of at the end of the year, you find mistakes more (promptly),” McClain said. “You don’t have to fix them nine months later.”

Tanksley said she expects to turn the audit back over to the city in January.

The city should be able to submit its 2014-2015 records as soon as Tanksley is done with the previous year’s audit. The 2014-2015 audit will be due in June 2016.

Community Development Director James Johnston said the lateness of the city’s audit had not prevented the city from receiving any grant monies, but may potentially delay state reimbursement of city expenses in ongoing grant-dependent projects such as the Natchez Trails and the exterior renovation of the Mississippi River Valley Train Depot.

Johnston asked the board to pay about $105,000 to contractors for work that has been done on the depot building and about $150,000 for the work done on the Natchez Trails project on Broadway and St. Catherine streets.

Johnston said grant monies from the Mississippi Department of Transportation should eventually reimburse the great majority of those expenses.

Aldermen discussed from which accounts the payments should be made. Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said the casino lease fund, which is expected to be deposited this month, would have to fund both payments.

“There’s only one place for it to come from, right down that hill where people play dice every day,” Fortenbery said.

The board approved the payments from the casino lease fund.

Fortenbery expressed frustration at the expense not having been budgeted beforehand.

“People are supposed to notify us,” Fortenbery said.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said this instance was a part of a larger problem.

“The board is being forced at beginning of year to take out tax anticipation loans to borrow money,” Dillard said, addressing Johnston. “It has to be understood by you and by the general public that right now the administration is over spending and under managing financial affairs.”

Johnston pointed out to the board that financial management was not in his purview, but that he had specifically been working with the city clerk’s office to prevent mishaps.

“You think I like coming to the board always asking for money for board-approved projects?” Johnston said. “The board should be commended for having a lot going on.”

Fortenbery and Dillard agreed Johnston was not at fault, but asked him to continue working closely with McClain.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who presided over the meeting in Mayor Butch Brown’s absence, pointed out the time constraints to sorting out city finances.

“We are getting ready to run for reelection,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “The people that pay our bills don’t want to hear from (the city clerk’s office), they’re asking us.”

Dillard said his concerns about the budget do not dissuade his support for the projects.

“I don’t want to give the impression to anyone that we’re holding up on anything,” Dillard said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Dillard said the board lacked timely information that would have led to handling these issues in annual budget meetings.

“Maybe we can set a precedent this year and start looking ahead,” Dillard said.


In other news:

Kenneth and Diana Haik, owners of Ravenna antebellum house, were denied their Board of Aldermen appeal of the Planning Commission decision that requires them to build a road to city specifications, rather than a gravel driveway, if they seek to divert their neighbors from using the existing driveway that leads in front of Ravenna.

The Haiks seek not to allow residents of adjacent lots to use the existing Ravenna driveway to access their homes as they currently do. A decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court disallowed the Haiks from simply barring off the driveway until another access method could be constructed.

Interim City Planner Riccardo Giani said a city ordinance requires a road be built to city specifications if it will provide access to more than two lots.

Giani said the code was not specific about whether the other dwellings and structures on the properties adjacent to Ravenna would be considered lots for purposes of the ordinance.

Aldermen decided Tuesday the ordinance did apply to the case, and the road would serve more than two lots. The board unanimously denied the appeal.

Attorney Scott Slover, who represented the city in the case, said the Haiks have 10 days to appeal the board’s decision.