Is city overspending depleting casino lease funds?

Published 11:44 pm Friday, April 15, 2016

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen Friday authorized the transfer of $54,000 to the general fund in order to fund payroll.

The money will come from the fund that holds lease payments from Magnolia Bluffs Casino. Such a fund transfer will likely be needed again during the remainder of the fiscal year, City Clerk Donnie Holloway said.

“We’re overspending,” Holloway said after the meeting. “We had to pay $1 million back in tax-anticipation loans.”

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The city’s decision to pay back the $1 million cut into the city’s available cash, Holloway said, depleting the funds that would otherwise go to funding payroll. The $1 million was borrowed since August 2015 in order to help the city meet its financial obligations at that time.

Another cause of the deficit is high payroll expenses, Holloway said, due to replacement of staff members who left employment during the hiring freeze.

The city’s six-month hiring freeze, adopted in September of last year, expired last month. The Board of Aldermen adopted the hiring freeze after Holloway requested $250,000 to make payroll in September 2015.

The freeze forbade raises or hiring for new positions but allowed replacement of staff who left existing positions.

Mayor Butch Brown said Friday’s transfers were nothing about which to be concerned.

“If we come up short on payroll because we painted this wall, boo-hoo,” Brown said. “Take money out of another account, or take out a loan.”

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery asked Holloway whether the board would have to continue funding payroll from the casino account for each bimonthly pay period.

“Unless something changes,” Holloway replied. “We’re strapped, that’s what I told y’all the other day.”

Holloway first asked for the loan at Tuesday’s regular board meeting, but no action was taken.

Fortenbery expressed concern the payroll coming from the casino lease fund will prevent the road repair projects for which the board had discussed using the money.

“We’re going to burn it all on payroll,” Fortenbery said. “We’re spending faster than we’re making right now. We better step up as a board and make some tough decisions.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the board should look at ways to avoid depleting the casino lease fund.

“Let’s look at the remainder of the fiscal year for where the revenues are and where we are with the payroll,” she said.

Major changes aren’t necessary, Brown said. The city’s debt is relatively low, he said, compared to other cities in the state.

“The City of Natchez is remarkably sound — $9 million in total debt,” Brown said. “It’s miscellaneous. It’s nothing. Take any city in Mississippi, I guarantee you our debt is lower.”

The city should prioritize services over debt reduction, Brown said.

“We have good programs, great assets,” Brown said. “We can’t let buildings fall down and not make payroll.”

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made a motion to pay the remainder of the payroll from the casino lease fund, which passed unanimously.

The board also authorized payroll of remaining part-time employees at the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

Brown said the payments would come from an account at the CVB and usually would be paid by the Convention Promotion Commission.

The board asked for the resignation of every member of the commission last week, and no members have been replaced yet.

Carby said it would be appropriate for the employees to be on the city docket, but it would require a motion to move them there.

The board moved to start paying the city employees at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center directly from city accounts.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith asked why the employees had not been paid directly by the city as part of its usual docket.

“We should have that, let’s move and get that back on our docket,” Smith said.

Assistant City Clerk Wendy McClain said the employees are paid from Mississippi Department of Transportation grant money, usually transferred to the CVB.

“The money should stay with us, and we should pay the bills,” McClain said in the meeting. “We haven’t gotten it yet this year, we’re working on the grant application.”