Sunday Focus: Natchez, Vidalia mayors reflect on first 100 days in office

Published 12:39 am Sunday, October 23, 2016

By Cain Madden & Lindsey Shelton
The Natchez Democrat

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell: Relationship with board of aldermen has improved

NATCHEZ — While his first 100 days as Natchez mayor have not been without challenges, Darryl Grennell said he thinks much has been accomplished since he took office.

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Grennell encountered his first challenge the day he took office on July 1, when he was blindsided by the nomination of former city attorney Everett Sanders for the position again by Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis. Grennell had publicly tapped attorney Robert “Bob” Latham, who was ultimately appointed in August following split votes on the rescission of Sanders’ appointment.

Since then, Grennell said his working relationship with the board of aldermen has improved, and he is pleased with that they have accomplished.

“At the beginning, it was a bit challenging, but the board members and myself … we all have the same goal,” he said. “We want to see Natchez move to the level it should be. We’re working together, and I’m very optimistic in terms of that working relationship.”

At the top of his list of accomplishments is the passing of a balanced budget and the adoption of purchasing procedures to help the city better track its spending. Facing an initial $750,000 deficit coming into the budgeting process, the board ultimately decided to allocate casino funds to cover the deficit.

Grennell said the city is taking a more proactive approach to getting a handle on its spending. Financial reports indicate the city has overspent its budget by $1 million in each of the past two fiscal years.

“Now, we have a purchasing plans in place, and in order for departments to purchase anything more than $100, they have to get a purchase order through our financial software system,” Grennell said. “It’s set up that if the money is not there, they can not get the purchase order and will have to get with the city clerk to see if the money is there.”

A controversial deal to renovate and develop the historic railroad depot on Broadway Street has been resolved. The lease agreement with New Orleans hotelier Warren Reuther was made before Grennell took office and drew public outcry and even a lawsuit over the perceived lack of transparency and alleged failing to follow legal procedures for the lease.

Grennell met with Reuther and Reuther’s attorney, former city attorney Walter Brown, recently. Grennell  reported that all sides thought it best to rescind the lease and start over.

“We can now get that on track and use a much better method,” Grennell said. “My personal position is that I would like the city to complete the interior of the depot, and either we lease it out or use it to enhance that area.”

Other accomplishments Grennell lists for his first 100 days include instituting weekly meetings for all department heads, which he says has enhanced communication between the departments.

Grennell also said the city has made good progress of needed improvements at the Natchez Fire Department so the city can maintain its current fire rating, including hiring more firefighters and seeking grant funding for a new ladder truck.

After coming into an understaffed tourism department without a director, Grennell said the city has replaced four Natchez Convention Promotion Commission members and hopes to make the final appointments next week. A search committee for a tourism director is in place, and Grennell said he thinks the city will have a director in place in the next month or so.

Grennell looks now to continue his push to improve technology in city operations, boost downtown development and other initiatives.

“I  am optimistic about the progress we have made so far,” he said.

Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft: Town working more efficiently

VIDALIA — Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said the first 100 days in office have had challenges, but he feels like the journey has been successful and has set the administration up to continue making improvements.

Some of the challenges included coming into office without any real transitional aid from the previous administration, starting off day one owing vendors approximately $1 million and utility rates being some of the highest in the region.

“I would call what we stepped into a deficit,” he said. “We are putting procedures in place to run our town more efficiently, and we are in the process of having an audit done.”

Craft said much of the challenges the town faced centered on the budget, which he came in the door looking to cut.

The Vidalia mayor began his tenure cutting 17 jobs and approximately $700,000 in personnel from the budget. And since then more people have left through retirement and other reasons and Craft has frozen hiring. Up to date, Craft projects $921,000 annually has been saved in salary and benefits.

“I feel like we are still overstaffed in a few areas,” he said. “Anytime you cut back, there is going to be some pain in the short term as people lose their jobs. It was tough, but it was necessary.

“A lot of credit to the employees we do have. I feel like we have been getting twice as much work done with fewer people.”

To pay past-due vendors, the town took out a $3.5 million line of credit, and the town also subsidized utility rates for a two-month period with funds from the line of credit at $150,000.

Craft said he hoped to not touch the line of credit any further, but said it was possible with project deadlines coming up at the Vidalia port and the Jack McLemore IT Center.

Craft said his priority is  keeping the budget balanced and avoiding hiring people just to provide jobs.

Going forward, Craft envisions the largest challenge will center on continuing to get the town’s budget balanced and update ordinances, which the administration has found in need of major updates and in some cases even conflict with each other.

“With a full quarter behind us, I feel like we are getting a grasp on what it costs to run the town,” Craft said. “In the first 90 days, I feel like we have been very successful, though we know there is still work to be done going forward.

“I respect the (board of aldermen) and their opinions. Many of us are new, but I feel like going forward it is just going to get better and better.”

Craft, a former banker, said it has been rewarding to get back in touch with the people of Vidalia.

“I want to thank the people for their support,” Craft said. “I also accept the criticism from the people who are not happy, and I want them to know I have an open-door policy, and I want them to feel comfortable coming in to voice their criticisms.”

Craft said he was looking forward to the future and the next set of challenges.

“I’m not saying we are through — there is still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I feel like we have a great community with a big upside.”