City debates raises for police officers, firefighters

Published 12:06 am Saturday, September 9, 2017

NATCHEZ — City leaders are still working tediously to put together a budget for next year, with less than a week to go before the proposed budget must be approved.

The mayor, board of aldermen and interim city clerk held Thursday a budget work session and discussed pivotal factors that will affect the outlook for next year — mainly pay-raise requests from city departments.

With a potential millage increase in the offing, the city has requests for department-wide salary increases from the police and fire departments (which have the most bearing on next year’s budget), Natchez Public Works and the city clerk’s office.

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Numerous other departments have asked for raises for a single employee.

Hypothetically, if the aldermen decided approve every department’s requests, the city would face a deficit of approximately $1.6 million, based on CPA Wallace Collins’ projections.

“So we know that’s not going to happen,” Collins said.

Among these requests, Collins said the main departments that must be addressed are police and fire, which have requested approximately $500,000 and $367,000, respectively, more than the previous year.

The aldermen discussed making many cuts to those proposals Thursday night, and Interim City Clerk Megan Edmonds and Collins said they would come up with updated projections taking into account those cuts.

After discussing raises for some time, Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said she was concerned based on Collins’ projections.

Collins said Thursday that the city is essentially “broke,” having “basically no (cash) reserves.” He added that if the city did not have money from Magnolia Bluffs Casino coming in, the city would be looking at layoffs across departments.

Collins added that the city was fortunate — in a financial sense — the police and fire departments were operating with fewer personnel than what they budgeted for. Throughout this year, both departments operated with as many as 10 fewer employees than what had been planned in the budget, saving the city somewhere in the neighborhood of $435,000 in the current fiscal year, Edmonds said.

Again, Collins said the city would be in dire straits without those savings.

Based on Collins’ report, Smith said the city must “be realistic.”

“I would love to give everybody a raise … but I don’t know how we’re doing this when we’re ‘broke,’” Smith said.

Smith said normally when a city is “broke,” discussions are about cuts, not raises, and she questioned the feasibility of providing some of the requested raises.

“I get the police and the fire. That is our frontline. That is public safety, and that is a responsibility of this board. But I’m going to be honest with you; an administrative clerk … everybody that works for this city is important, believe me, they are, but that is not the same as the people out there that put their life on the line.”

The aldermen all said they would approve a 5-percent blanket raise (not including the chiefs) for both the police and fire departments.

As for the other departments, Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said his “exception,” for approving salary raises, outside of police and fire, would be the city clerk’s office.

After he first said the city should focus for now solely on first responders, Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis brought up the clerk’s office.

“What about the people that have been working to get us down in the city clerk’s office?” Arceneaux-Mathis asked?

Grennell acknowledged that the clerk’s office has worked “tooth and nail” to undo the shortfalls of the previous administration in the department. He also said the current department has been operating short of one employee.

“So if there’s an exception, it’s the city clerk’s office,” he said.

Edmonds is asking for a $1 per hour raise across her department. She also asks the city to fill one vacancy (she consolidated two positions to cut down her vacancies from two).

All of the aldermen said they would support Edmonds’ requests, which the “work-in-process” budget projects will add approximately $32,000 in wages and salaries for the next fiscal year.

One other department — Natchez Public Works — requested a pay raise across the board.

Though Public Works Superintendent Justin Dollar originally requested a 7-percent raise, Edmonds and Collins bumped that down to 3-percent in the work-in-process budget. That increase would cost the city approximately $82,257 more than last year in wages and salaries, based on the projections.

The aldermen, however, then discussed a potential compromise of providing raises for only a portion of Public Works employees.

Just three months ago, the city approved raises, or “salary adjustments,” from 50 cents up to $1.50 per hour for positions that require special skillsets or certification. Dollar, at the time, said the department had money in its budget to cover the total $15,000 in raises through the end of the fiscal year.

Like law enforcement and firefighters, Dollar said his department needs raises to encourage employees to stay with the city.

Aldermen discussed the possibility of granting the 3-percent raise to the rest of the positions that did not receive salary adjustments.

Edmonds said she would have to run the numbers to see what those projections would look like.

Finally, the board discussed the city’s Duncan Park Golf Course in the wake of recent discussions about the course’s poor condition.

Golf course bookkeeper David Troutman requested $174,000 for repairs and maintenance of the golf course, which was decreased to $50,000 in the work-in-process budget.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said he believed all repairs should be covered by under the city’s public properties budget.

Natchez YMCA Director Alice Agner said Thursday the recreation commission would be willing to contribute funds for repairs, but they are unsure exactly what budget they will be working with until the interlocal agreement between the YMCA and the city and county is done being revised.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Collins said the board would need to schedule another work session before the public hearing at 5 p.m. Friday, at which the city plans to approve a 2017-2018 budget.

The board settled on 4 p.m. Tuesday to hold the work session. The meeting will be held in the City Hall conference room.

Grennell, who had planned to be out of town, said he would participate via telephone.