City cemetery association voices budget concerns to aldermen

Published 12:49 am Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NATCHEZ — Facing a $33,000 cut in funding from the city, Natchez City Cemetery Association members showed up at Tuesday’s budget hearing to plead their case to the board of aldermen — and it may have worked.

Aldermen decided at a Monday budget work session to cut the city-owned cemetery appropriation from $72,000 to a little more than $39,000. The cemetery association had requested $96,000.

The city’s budget currently has an approximately $447,000 deficit, and the aldermen have worked during several budget meetings to identify where cuts could be made.

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After hearing appeals from cemetery association members and supporters, Mayor Darryl Grennell recommended the board of aldermen keep the cemetery appropriation at $72,000.

Cemetery association board member Shirley Petkovsek told the aldermen the city funds only $72,000 of the cemetery’s approximately $350,000 in expenses.

“It is unrealistic that the city not assume full financial responsibility. … I cannot think of a city property that needs the money more than the cemetery,” she said. “Think about what it would cost the city to operate the Natchez City Cemetery if … we didn’t have these thousands of hours of volunteer (work).”

Petkovsek gave an overview of the cemetery association, established in 1907, and its mission to care for and beautify the cemetery, as well as information about cemetery events and the site’s impact of tourism.

“Yet with all our efforts, we never have enough money,” she said. “We struggle to meet payroll and vendors. There is so much more to maintaining this cemetery than just cutting the grass.”

Cemetery association treasurer Paula Estes gave a breakdown of some of the cemetery’s expenses, which totaled approximately $271,000 last year, and increased this year.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said Monday and again Tuesday she is against cutting the cemetery appropriation. Smith, the mayor and other aldermen thanked the cemetery association members for their tireless efforts maintaining the cemetery.

While the city is facing a deficit, Smith said she does not think appropriations have a significant impact on the deficit.

“I think the elephant in this room is that we are going to have to have a tax increase,” she said.

Smith said the tax increase is an issue the aldermen will likely look at next year. Smith said she has not felt comfortable with the idea of a tax increase since taking office in 2012 because the city has not had its financial house in order.

Smith said she was confident that with Interim City Clerk Melissa Hawk running the city clerk’s office now that the city could get a clear picture of its finances.

City officials have said the last tax increase was in 1984. However, ad valorem taxes were raised 4.199 mills in September 2000, the first time in 15 years.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard noted that the city’s budget currently sits at approximately $28 million, down from previous fiscal years.

Dillard said the city might need to consider an across-the-board cut of 3 to 3.5 percent to eliminate the deficit.

When the city adopted a budget in September 2015 for the current fiscal year, projected revenues were $35.1 million and projected expenditures were $32.9 million, leaving a $2.2 million surplus.

Recent reports from the city clerk’s office indicate the city has overspent its budget by approximately $1 million. An audit report of the 2014-2015 fiscal year shows the city overspent its budget by approximately $1 million in that year as well.

Dillard, who voted against adopting last year’s budget, said he feels confident now that the city is headed in the right direction.

“My hat’s off to Mrs. Hawk and this administration. … We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Grennell agreed and said, “We’ve got to do things right in the City of Natchez.”

The city still has $447,000 to cut from the proposed budget. Department heads have been asked to make additional cuts in their budgets and turn revised budgets into the city clerk’s office by 10 a.m. Friday.

The aldermen will reconvene Thursday to talk more cuts following scheduled interviews for candidates for the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission.