City may have solved budget deficit

Published 1:01 am Saturday, September 3, 2016

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen appears to have solved its approximately $481,000 budget deficit problem.

During a budget meeting Thursday night, Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis suggested the city dedicate $500,000 of the city’s $1 million annual lease payment from Magnolia Bluffs Casino to cover shortfalls in the working budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

The suggestion came after the aldermen went back and forth with ideas about cuts, reiterating ideas they had proposed including a 3- to 5-percent, across-the-board cut, furloughs, layoffs and raising taxes.

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Arceneaux-Mathis said she has so far not been particularly worried about balancing the budget because “I knew the money was there.”

In previous years, the city has used the casino lease payment, which is paid in monthly installments, for its paving program and to cover cash shortfalls. The city will continue to use the second half of the lease fund money for the ongoing street-paving program.

Interim City Clerk Melissa Hawk confirmed Friday the casino lease payment fund is budgeted separately than the general fund and is available to cover the deficit.

Arceneaux-Mathis said she wants to see the money dedicated for the deficit for only one year. Arceneaux-Mathis said she does not want the city to make a habit of depending on the casino lease fund to cover regular and recurring expenses, because the revenue is not guaranteed.

“They could go belly up,” she said. “I’m not saying they’re going to, but they could.”

Arceneaux-Mathis said she would like to see the city continue to look for areas to cut so it uses as little of the casino lease fund as necessary to cover the deficit.

In addition to allocating the $500,000 from the casino lease fund, the city may be able to add additional revenue of approximately $160,000 to $180,000 to its budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

That revenue will depend on if an approximately $100,000 loan the aldermen previously approved for a tractor comes in the current fiscal year or next fiscal year. The loan would count as a revenue in whichever year it is received.

The remaining revenue could come from a payment the Convention and Visitors Bureau previously paid to the city that varies from approximately $60,000 to $80,000. The aldermen could not specify exactly for what the payment was, but said a previous administration discontinued collecting the payment to help out the CVB budget.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith suggested the city pick back up on collecting the payment.

The CVB previously paid the city $60,000 a year from food and lodging tax collections to rent office space at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center.

The aldermen have said multiple times they first and foremost want to ensure necessary budget requests for the police and fire departments are covered.

While some aldermen have said the Natchez City Cemetery Association made a convincing argument for its allocation not to be cut from $72,000 to $39,400, Arceneaux-Mathis reiterated Thursday it should be a careful consideration.

The cemetery allocation was previously $39,400, but was increased to $72,000 a couple of years ago to help the cemetery association cover costs and to make up for the cemetery previously not receiving profits from plot sales. Cemetery board members have said the city-owned property’s annual costs are approximately $350,000.

“I know y’all think it’s a taboo subject,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “It’s not that nobody wants to do it. It’s about how far are you going to go? … Are you going to give everybody (what they ask for)?

Arceneaux-Mathis advised the aldermen to make budget decisions based on what is best for the city and not let personal emotions or fear of backlash cloud their judgment.

“We cannot let emotions get involved in budgets,” she said. “I’ve got four graves out there, so I understand. … Y’all are worried about what people are going to say, and I don’t care what people say.”

Arceneaux-Mathis reiterated what she told the cemetery association members at a meeting Tuesday, saying she thinks the city needs to be prepared for increasing expenses for public safety given violence that has happened across the country.

Regarding other increases in the budget, the aldermen seem to be puzzled by why the budget shows salary increases when raises are apparently supposed to be approved by the aldermen.

Prior to that discussion, Arceneaux-Mathis said the funding for last raises approved by the aldermen in 2012 was never specified.

“Obviously, it was coming out of the casino lease fund,” she said.

The aldermen seemed to suggest that raises may have been approved that were never presented to the aldermen.

Arceneaux-Mathis noted that salary expenses should be consistent and should not fluctuate, so it would not make sense for the numbers to change year to year.

“Who approved (the raises?)” she asked.

“Evidently, from what I can extrapolate here, is that … either they hired somebody during this fiscal year or increased somebody’s salary, and you guys didn’t know about it,” said Mayor Darryl Grennell, who took office July 1.

The city’s budget discussions come on the heels of an audit revealing the city overspent its budget by $1 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year and reports from the clerk’s office that the city is on track to do the same in the current year. The talks also follow the termination of former city clerk Wendy McClain, who was fired a few weeks ago for an unspecified violation of city policy.

The city clerk’s office lost another employee Thursday when the office’s accountant abruptly resigned. The aldermen discussed the resignation in executive session and gave the clerk’s office permission to begin searching for a replacement.

Most of the work on the budget is being completed by Hawk, who has been on the job approximately a month. The mayor and aldermen have lauded her quick knowledge and understanding of the budget, as well as her work ethic, which has included working on weekends and coming in at 6 a.m. on regular work days.

The city is required to adopt a balanced budget by Sept. 15. The aldermen currently plan to present a final budget to adopt at its Sept. 13 meeting.

The aldermen will pick up budget talks Tuesday following the last round of Natchez Convention Promotion Commission interviews, which begin at 4:30 p.m.