City budget still work in progress

Published 12:34 am Friday, September 8, 2017

NATCHEZ — Tough decisions, poignant questions and harsh reality marked Thursday night’s public hearing in the Council Chambers.

Required by state law, the public hearing prefaces the adoption of a fiscal year 2017-2018 budget, which is set to happen 5 p.m. a week from today in the same location.

At Thursday’s hearing, a few members of the public voiced their opinions and concerns.

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The most spirited dialogue between a member of the public and the board came from resident Duncan McFarlane, who stood at the podium for more than 10 minutes (though mayor Darryl Grennell had limited each commenter to three minutes).

McFarlane first questioned why those attending were not provided a copy of a budget or any sort of document containing possible numbers for next year’s budget.

“You’re all talking amongst yourselves,” McFarlane said. “We the public, we don’t have any of these numbers … It’s kind of hard for us to make a comment when you’re not giving us the data.”

McFarlane said such data had been provided in previous years to those attending public hearings.

Grennell said the budget is, as CPA Wallace Collins deemed it, a “work in process,” and that nothing could be handed out because the city lacks hard numbers. A proposed budget will, however, be provided at next week’s public hearing, Grennell said.

McFarlane then brought up the issue of consolidation. He said the city had an opportunity to really consider consolidating the Natchez Police Department with the Adam’s County Sheriff’s Office when the city’s police chief position stood vacant.

McFarlane continued that he was confused why the city chose to fill the position before receiving results from the Stennis Institute, which is currently conducting a study that aims to determine what benefit or detriment consolidation would cause.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith stressed that consolidation, while potentially beneficial, could also lead to the opposite effect if done haphazardly.

“If you fail to do your due diligence … it can be one of the worst mistakes you can make,” Smith said. “It can be a disaster.”

Finally, McFarlane questioned whether the city still needs six aldermen after a stark population decline over the years.

“Before you start raising taxes, you better start cutting to the bone,” McFarlane said.

The next public commenter, Robert Pernell, voiced his support for providing city police officers and firefighters with pay raises.

“If you have to raise the millage, raise the millage, but let’s keep the good men and women that we have for public safety here in Natchez,” Pernell said.

Pernell’s remarks were met with an ovation from those attending, a group consisting mostly of firefighters and police officers.

Two other members of the public said they would also like to see raises for police officers and firefighters.

During the hearing, Collins addressed what kind of additional revenue the city could expect after recent property reassessments.

Unlike the county, Collins said, the city is looking at a relatively tame increase in revenue from recent property tax reassessments — approximately $159,000.

After the hearing closed, Collins brought up the need to address the budget requests made by both the police and fire departments.

Not taking into account a possible tax millage increase, Collins said if the aldermen gave both departments everything requested, the city would face an approximately $600,000 deficit for the next fiscal year.

Collins said as the “work-in-process” budget for next year currently stood, NPD would receive approximately $500,000 more than the previous year’s budget, with NFD having a $367,000 increase.

Collins added that if the city approved a 4-mill increase, the additional revenue (calculated at approximately $117,000 per mill) would still not cover the deficit shown in the working budget.

Taking into account those projections, Collins suggested the city cut down on these requests by the department.

“There’s no way around it,” Collins said.

The aldermen continued to discuss ways to cut those numbers down while still providing the departments with raises, which the entire board and mayor said they support on some level.

When polled, all the aldermen said the would agree to a 5-percent raise for police officers across the board while also filling three of the department’s currently vacant positions instead of four.

Further, the board discussed a request from the police department regarding the need for additional vehicles. Interim City Clerk Megan Edmonds said the police department requested $250,000 for the purchase of 10 new vehicles.

The aldermen all said they would approve cutting that down to four vehicles.

As for the fire department, the aldermen agreed to fill just two of 10 vacant job positions. Edmonds said the city had also removed the request for approximately $264,000 for renovations as part of a matching grant.

Edmonds said the city would instead have to consider a bond issue or loan for the renovations.