Residents raise concerns about city budget
Published 11:41 pm Tuesday, September 11, 2018
NATCHEZ — The Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen on Tuesday held a second required public hearing on the city’s proposed 2019 fiscal year budget, which aldermen are expected to pass on Friday, despite concerns raised by some Natchez residents during the hearing.
Although assessed property values in the city have declined, the city is not proposing a tax increase, said James Johnston interim city clerk and the city’s millage rate of 46.732 will remain at the same level as last year.
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A notable expenditure listed in the budget is the purchase of a new aerial ladder truck with a pumper for the Natchez Fire Department to replace a current truck that is non-compliant with the Mississippi State Rating Bureau, Johnston said.
Officials have agreed to purchase the truck with a 2-percent, tax-exempt loan through the capital improvements program. The loan should not exceed $1 million, Johnston said.
The city also intends to raise the hourly wage for Natchez police officers at entry-level from $13.05 to $15.50 per hour and provide step-raises for officers with a rank of sergeant or lower.
Officials were able to provide the raise by eliminating two long-standing vacant police officer positions from the budget in hopes of filling the remaining eight vacancies, said the outgoing Natchez City Clerk Megan Edmonds.
During Tuesday’s budget public hearing, each audience member was allowed three minutes to present statements on the budget or make requests for the 2019 budget.
Paul Benoist, a Natchez resident and native, had a list of 15 issues he would like the board to address. Benoist only had a chance to speak on four of those issues before his three minutes were up.
“It’s disappointing to me that the alleged transparency that has been talked about has not taken place,” Benoist said.
He said the draft of the proposed budget was not made available to the public until the first budget hearing commenced last Friday, making it difficult for the public to adequately respond.
Benoist said he believes the proposed budget does not reflect the city’s decline in population, officials should consider reducing their own salaries to be equivalent to cities of similar size and that non-profit contributions such as the city’s appropriation to the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race should be placed under the authority of the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission.
Alderman Dan Dillard said appropriations for non-profit organizations are much needed.
“I think those appropriations are well worth it, and I stand behind them,” Dillard said.
Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said he agrees with investing city funds into events and quality-of-life enhancements.
“The balloon race is not just enjoyed by visitors coming to Natchez,” Grennell said. “There are citizens right here who look forward to the balloon race every single year. … We’re trying our best in this city in order to protect the citizens of Natchez and enhance the quality of life. … I don’t get $65,000 as mayor. I only get $24,000. … I use my own cell phone. I drive my own vehicle. … I am trying my best to help this city.”
Officials also heard from Natchez residents John White — who spoke of hiring a city manager — and Robert Adams, who discussed a number of line items in the budget that Adams said he believed should be changed or explained.
“We definitely need to have another public hearing,” Adams said. “You can’t have a public hearing and ask for comments when you don’t even have a budget in your hands.”