City still needs to cut $457,000 budget

Published 11:55 pm Monday, August 29, 2016

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez still needs to cut approximately $457,000 to adopt a balanced budget for its upcoming fiscal year.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen met Monday evening with Interim City Clerk Melissa Hawk, who informed the board she had cut the city’s general fund deficit in the working budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year from approximately $749,000 to $457,000.

The city’s overall budget includes $28.54 million in expected revenue and $28.356 million in requested expenditures.

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The general fund, which is essentially the city’s operating funds, is still in the hole

The board will host a public hearing at 5 p.m. today in the City Council Chambers to receive public comments on the budget.

The aldermen plan to adopt a budget at a meeting on Sept. 13 and are required to do so by Sept. 15.

Hawk said after the meeting the cuts she made to the budget over the weekend included adjusting departments’ budgets down based on what they actually spent this year instead of a higher projected number for years past.

Substantial cuts came from Hawk realizing that department heads had budgeted payments for vehicles that would actually be paid off this fiscal year or before the end of next fiscal year.

Hawk told the board during the meeting she thinks the next appropriate step is to give the budget back to department heads and ask them to make further cuts.

The aldermen went through the budget eyeing other areas that could be cut, with Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard saying a $300,000 line item for the purchase of equipment should be carefully looked at in the budget.

Hawk said she thinks the requested equipment expenditure was across multiple departments.

Dillard said he thinks that is an expenditure that could possibly be cut and asked Hawk to look into the specific purchases requested.

Dillard also criticized the use of “miscellaneous” budget items. He said requested expenses should find an appropriate and specific category or be cut.

“We’re looking for a half a million dollars (to cut),” Dillard said. “Miscellaneous is just not going to cut it.”

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith agreed and said some areas of the budget, including contracts across various departments, are “too vague.”

The aldermen also reviewed appropriations and cut the city cemetery appropriation down from $72,000 to $39,000. The cemetery association had requested $96,000.

“I hate to do that to them,” Smith said. “It’s a huge attraction for our town, and when it looks bad, it makes our town look bad.

“Before we start cutting things that are bringing (visitors) to our city … we don’t know where we’re overspending,” Smith said. “I don’t think appropriations is where we’re overspending.”

In addition to attempting to identify where cuts can be made, the aldermen talked about how the city could afford improvements that would be necessary to keep its current fire protection rating. The city was recently notified that its fire protection status no longer warrants its current 5 rating from the Mississippi State Rating Bureau.

The fire department needs to hire at least six additional firefighters, and the aldermen determined approximately $54,000 would be needed for the budget.

Dillard suggested the aldermen ask Wesley what other areas of the fire budget could be cut to make up the difference.

The aldermen said hiring more firefighters should allow the department to use its overtime budget for salaries because more personnel would mean less overtime.

The aldermen said the city may need to take out a loan to purchase a ladder truck MSRB said the city needs to add to its fleet. Chief Aaron Wesley told the aldermen via teleconference the truck may cost approximately $800,000. The aldermen determined a special fire fund in the city’s budget restricted by the state for equipment, training and other expenses may be able to be used for payments on the truck.

The aldermen also met in executive session twice during the meeting, once briefly after discussion turned to whether money was allocated in the budget to repay a $200,000 transfer made in a previous fiscal year out of the restricted pension fund. The aldermen cited the personnel exception of the open meetings law as the reason for executive session, specifically job performance of a city clerk’s office employee.

The aldermen met for a second time in executive session for approximately an hour after budget talks turned to whether Community Development Director James Johnston’s salary should be reduced. In the absence of a city planner, Johnston took over planning and zoning as well as oversight in other areas of city operations. His salary was bumped from its $60,000 starting figure to $65,000 after 90 days then to $75,000 after he took on new duties.

Since the city now has a planner, the aldermen noted Johnston salary would likely need to revert since he was no longer overseeing other departments.