City to use part of casino money for deficit

Published 12:12 am Tuesday, September 13, 2016

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez will use approximately $763,000 of the $1 million annual lease payment it receives from Magnolia Bluffs Casino to cover a deficit in the 2016-2017 budget.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen plans to adopt the budget at its 11 a.m. meeting today in the Natchez City Council Chambers.

The aldermen, Mayor Darryl Grennell, City Attorney Robert “Bob” Latham and Interim City Clerk Melissa Hawk reviewed final adjustments to the budget at a Monday meeting.

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The aldermen had previously agreed to dedicate $500,000 of the annual lease payment to cover a similar sized deficit in the city’s general fund, which is essentially the funding that operates the city.

Hawk told the aldermen Monday an additional $263,000 would be needed to cover the full budget deficit.

Hawk said after the meeting the additional funds were needed to cover adjustments needed in the budget, including making sure the city’s $550,000 commitment to recreation was covered as well as automatic step raises for police and fire personnel.

Previous budget numbers for police and fire personnel wages did not account for the step raises, Hawk said.

Additionally, the budget number for the $56,000 the city annually allocates for the county juvenile justice center had to be corrected. By some mistake in a previous fiscal year, the city did not pay the juvenile justice center and has been making monthly payments to catch up. Those payments will continue through November.

The budget was also adjusted to reflect that salary and benefits for two additional firefighters to be hired at Natchez Fire Department will come out of the department’s overtime budget of approximately $90,000, leaving $24,000 for overtime.

To comply with criteria set out by the Mississippi State Rating Bureau to maintain the city’s current 5 fire rating, NFD has to hire six additional firefighters.

After discussing how dropping to a 6 rating would impact not only city residents but county residents as well, the aldermen decided they would request from the Adams County Board of Supervisors that the city and county split the expense, covering three firefighters each.

Grennell stepped out to call Supervisors President Mike Lazarus during the meeting about the request, and reported back to the board that Lazarus said he would poll the supervisors regarding the firefighters. The county is expected to adopt its budget Thursday.

Another issue that may affect the budget that is still unresolved is the city’s health insurance policy for its employees, which expires soon.

The city has been working to collect proposals from insurance agents, and Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said the city might save up to $500,000 on health insurance costs in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1

The agenda for today’s meeting includes a discussion about health insurance.

Grennell and the aldermen have discussed at least twice having a forensic audit of the city’s finances conducted by an outside firm. Grennell told the aldermen he met last week with accountants who have municipal government experience and are based in Madison.

All of the aldermen have agreed that a forensic audit will help the city identify past financial mistakes and aid in understanding the current state of the city’s finances.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said he understands the position the city is in now in terms of needing to cover the deficit, but said he hopes relying on the casino lease payment as general fund operating money should not become a habit.

“There’s going to come a point where the lease fund monies coming in will be nothing more than money for the general fund,” he said. “It’s not any different than what the previous administration was doing, except they were doing it without telling us.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said if the city clerk’s office can eventually provide the aldermen with accurate financial information, it would allow the aldermen to evaluate whether taxes need to be raised in the future.

While Dillard said budgets for core government services such as police and fire protection and public works were not going up or increasing only slightly, budgets for the mayor’s office, city clerk’s office, planning department and others are projected to increase.

Dillard noted an approximately $30,000 increase still in the budget for the mayor’s office.

The aldermen agreed to keep their spending, which includes expenses such as travel, the same as it was last year.

“I just don’t want us to say we have a bare-bones budget, but it have increased spending,” he said. “If we are having to do all these things to balance the budget … then we shouldn’t be overspending.

“If police and fire and public works are not increasing, but the aldermen, mayor, city clerk, city attorney and planning (expenses) are increasing, to me, says there is too much increased spending at (City Hall).”