Changes needed in local government

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, January 17, 2018

While local public officials continue to either sit on surplus property taken off the tax rolls and rented below market rates, or steer it to nonprofits with no track record, kick around unrealistic local public expenditures, and continue to chase grant money we cannot match, let’s take a few minutes to look at some actual, real numbers and some actual, real local realities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates the living wage for a single person working full-time, 2080 hours per year, and living in Adams County, at $10.19 per hour, or $21,195.20 per year. A married couple with only one working spouse requires $16.90 per hour to make ends meet for the basic necessities of life, or $35,152. If children are in the picture, the rate runs from a low of $20.65 to $29.27 per hour.  See,

Meanwhile, our part-time elected officials, aldermen and supervisors, make $22,299.84 and $44,700 per year, respectively, plus a basketful of perks. Each of these figures for part-time public service work exceeds the full-time wages of a single person working full-time at $10.19 per hour, as well as exceeding the pay of many non-elected local public employees.

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Supervisor salaries are set by statute, based on total assessed property valuation in the county, so it is in the financial interests of elected supervisors to always look for ways to keep increasing the assessed value of property located in the county. Mississippi Code 25-3-13. This is so, even when Adams County has been hammered by a steady loss of more than 10,000 to 12,000 residents over the years. And, there is gaming opportunity manipulating assessments and millage rates. That said, state law requires each of the 82 counties to have a board of supervisors. There is a procedure for counties to merge and consolidate with other counties, which politicians will no doubt resist, although a place where Adams County might provide regional leadership to develop southwest Mississippi, an area that competes with the Delta for last place in almost every category in the state.

In contrast, municipal salaries are set locally, and municipalities can change their form of government and even be dissolved in certain cases. According to the Stennis Institute at MSU, in 2015, the average Mayor in Mississippi was paid $30,167 per year, with a median salary of $16,777. The average alderman was paid $9,308 per year, with the median being $7,500. This puts Natchez at about three times the median for part-time alderman work, and about 2.4 times the average salary for the part-time work. The Mayor’s salary is listed in the 2017 salary survey as $69,799.92, or about $40,000 above the state average. In modern practice, aldermen handle policy and mayors are basically titular in nature. Our obvious problem locally is that the city does not have anyone running the city day to day to get things done, or done on  time. It is time to begin a community discussion on reducing the size of city and county government to match our declining population and current community realities and in particular, the increasing burden on the ever-shrinking number of taxpayers.

The basic cost, prior to taxes and benefits of our current aldermen and mayor comes to a little under $204,000 per year. I know that some of these officials are not taking their full salary due to reduction of earned public retirement, should they take a full salary. Nonetheless, we are paying too much for what we are getting for these part-time positions. If Natchez voted to change its form of government to the so-called Commission form of government in place in Vicksburg, we would immediately reduce from seven to three the number of city elected legislative and executive-type public officials, and immediately save about $90,000 that could be applied towards hiring a non-partisan city manager to actually run the city. Or, the public discussion might turn to favor the Council-Manager form of government, which also features a non-partisan manager to run the city day to day.

With the ongoing failures by our elected local officials to timely get basic garbage contracts timely renewed, failure to bid out health insurance, unlawfully leaving expired RFPs open,  failing to maintain Duncan Park, failing to open shelters in inclement weather, failure to complete audits timely, failure to integrate accounting programs for compatibility with others, allowing violations of bid laws on automobiles and allowing unapproved travel, no financial controls or reports from the convention center for ten years, over billing for services at the port, and no airport plan of operations since 1976, there is plenty of room for improvement in our local government. Let’s begin the discussion.

Paul Benoist is a Natchez resident.