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Natchez cemetery association asks aldermen to restore funding cut from budget

NATCHEZ — Facing uncertainty about the current budget, the Natchez Board of Aldermen deferred action on a request from the city cemetery association to restore funding previously cut from the city-owned property.

Several members of the cemetery association appeared before the board at its Tuesday finance meeting prior to the regular meeting to ask that the city’s approximately $40,000 appropriation be restored to its previous $72,000.

In September 2016, on the heels of wrestling to balance the budget with what started as an approximately $750,000 deficit, the city cut the cemetery’s appropriation. The city owns the cemetery, but the nonprofit Natchez City Cemetery Association operates the cemetery, which is largely funded by private donations and fundraisers coordinated by volunteers.

Following pleas from the cemetery association and reports from cemetery board members that showed the city only supplies the association with a fraction of the cemetery’s actual operating cost, some city officials seemed agreeable in August to restoring the allocation to $72,000.

The budget, however, was approved with the cut, with aldermen saying they would revisit the budget when they had a better picture of the city’s finances.

On Tuesday, cemetery association treasurer Paula Estes presented Mayor Darryl Grennell and the aldermen with detailed accounting of the cemetery’s income and expenses for the past 12 months.

Total income was approximately $170,200, and expenses totaled approximately $258,500, leaving a deficit of a little more than $88,000.

Of that income, volunteers earned — through fundraisers, the sale of merchandise and other items — approximately $73,000, more than double the city allocation.

The city, Estes said, provides less than 15.5 percent of the cemetery’s total operating cost.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard voiced opposition to the cut in August, and said then that he would be watching carefully to ensure the funding was restored.

On Tuesday, Dillard said the city could not expect a volunteer organization to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the cemetery when it is a city-owned property.

“To defer responsibility to a volunteer group … to me, is unfair,” Dillard said.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, who also voiced opposition to the cut in August, asked the board to consider voting in the finance meeting and reaffirming the vote during the regular meeting to restore the cemetery’s funding.

Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Irving asked that the board defer action until after an upcoming budget meeting so they could ensure the money was in the budget.

“I’m not saying we won’t do it, (but) I think we need a little more time before we commit,” she said.

Smith asked Interim City Clerk Megan Edmonds about the status of the approximately $430,000 in extra revenue from Magnolia Bluffs Casino that came in this year as a possibility for funding the cemetery appropriation.

Edmonds said the fund has approximately $251,000 remaining, but when asked by Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arcneaux-Mathis, said the city clerk’s office would be soon be asking for $300,000 to $400,000 for a loan or transfer in the budget to cover payroll.

At a recent meeting, the board approved a $400,000 inter-fund loan from the casino fund to the general fund, Smith pointed out.

Edmonds said the accounting firm hired to provide assistance to the clerk’s office was helping to evaluate whether the movements of money should be done as interfund loans or transfers. Interfund loans must be repaid within the same fiscal year, transfers do not.

Dillard expressed frustration that the $1.4 million in casino lease money for the year becoming nothing more than making up for the overspending or “mismanagement” of the budget. Dillard said the administration has an approved budget and an obligation to stick to it.

“For you just to be able to transfer monies out of the casino fund, it’s ridiculous,” he said.

With unanswered questions about where the money would come from  to restore the cemetery’s funding, Smith deferred making a motion until after the budget meeting.

Cemetery board member Shirley Petkovsek stressed to city officials that the cemetery is facing bills that it needs to soon pay and cannot do so without the city’s assistance.

“You’ve seen our expenses,” she said. “We have bills that we have to pay, and we are down to the bare bones. To keep waiting, it’s hard for us to manage. … We cannot operate on what we are getting right now. We absolutely cannot.”