Disagreement involves expenses at Natchez Visitor Reception Center

Published 12:07 am Sunday, May 15, 2016

NATCHEZ — A disagreement surrounding expenses at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center may complicate the payment of some city bills.

The City of Natchez is expecting to receive $70,720 from its tourism department before a $600,000 capital payment on the convention center bond is due in July.

However, a former member of the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission said the tourism department might not owe the city anything.

Email newsletter signup

Former commissioner and retired accountant Dennis Switzer said the commission had taken on many expenses that were supposed to be handled by the city.

In addition, Switzer said, the commission was charged thousands more in payroll than he believes was due.

Natchez City Clerk Donnie Holloway says the CVB owes $70,720 to the city in payroll overages, but Switzer says that’s not so because expenses of the visitor center were paid by the commission.

The disagreement involves a $275,000 grant the city received from the Mississippi Department of Transportation in the fall of 2015.

Holloway said $100,000 was used to renovate the colonnades site near the visitor center and $175,000 was used to operate the Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was transferred into the operations account in November 2015. The expenses for the operation of the visitor center, which previously were handled directly by the city, were also moved to the CVB’s docket at that time to be paid for from the grant money.

Holloway told Natchez aldermen last month the instructions to transfer those funds to the CVB came from a memo from the mayor’s office, but Natchez Mayor Butch Brown replied he had not given such instructions.

Switzer said the commission spent a good deal on the maintenance of the visitor center, as it was expected to do when it received the grant money.

As a result, Switzer said, the CVB might not owe the city. In fact, Switzer said the city may even owe the CVB reimbursement on its visitor center expenses, if those expenses exceeded $175,000.

He is unsure of the exact amount spent, Switzer said, but feels it is unlikely the CVB owes the city very much.

“We felt that our expenses, the expenses we paid were a lot,” Switzer said. “We thought they were close to what the grant was, if not more.”

Holloway said he was not aware the commission had paid for any of the maintenance expenses at the visitor center, because the commission did not inform his office they had spent any part of the grant money.

Switzer said the commission started paying the expenses that would normally have been the city’s responsibility after receiving the grant.

“But to confuse the matter, the city sent us an invoice for $44,000 for payroll cost,” Switzer said.

The $44,000, which Holloway said was for employee health insurance, was charged to the CVB in addition to the regular $30,000 a month the CVB usually pays the city in order to handle their payroll.

“They provided us with staff for a turnkey amount of $30,000 a month,” Switzer said. “And they sent this $44,000 bill over here for us to pay and our staff prepared a check for it … I asked for the check back the day it was delivered and they wouldn’t give it back. They deposited it.”

Because they did not think they were liable for the $44,000, Switzer said, the commission did not pay the $30,000 turnkey amount for April as part of their regular business, but Switzer said they did pay the rent for their office space.

“The only thing we did not write a check for was the $30,000 management fee,” he said. “But remember, we had already paid the $44,000 that we didn’t think we were supposed to, that we didn’t think we were actually liable for. So as far as we were concerned, all the bills had been paid and we were clear with everybody.”

Holloway disagreed. He said the $44,000 was correctly charged because the $30,000 monthly fee did not cover the city’s expenses in health insurance coverage for fiscal year 2014-2015.

He also said the CVB owes the city $70,720 for payroll alone since the commission was dismissed in April.

The overages, he said, are due to the CVB hiring more people — at higher salaries — than can be covered by the regular $30,000.

“That contract was when we were not paying somebody $110,000 a year,” Holloway said, referring to the salary of former tourism director Kevin Kirby.

The fee was set forth by a management agreement between the city and the commission.

The agreement was created in 2007 and expired in 2012, Switzer said, but the commission continued making payments in the same manner after the expiration.

Switzer said he is unsure whether the CVB owes the city or the city owes the CVB.

Switzer said he thinks the city should look at the books when a new commission is appointed and figure out exactly who owes whom and how much.

“It’s something that can be done very easily and can be worked out very easily,” Switzer said. “I don’t know why it would be complicated.”