The Jackson City Council approved a balanced $387.7 million city budget last Friday, after almost two weeks of grueling daily budget meetings.
The council had to come to grips with a $3.4 million budget shortfall, carried over in part from plummeting revenue streams, hikes in overtime in the police and fire departments and overly optimistic expectations from the last fiscal year.
The new budget contains fee hikes, a debt re-financing deal and employee cuts.
The council opted to go with the city administration's proposal to increase city water and sewer rates by 15 percent, and a 60-cent sanitation fee hike. The almost 10 percent water fee increase, followed by a 5 percent sewer increase, will tack another $8 onto homeowners' quarterly $80 water/sewer bill, according to some council members. The city will supposedly generate almost $3 million in extra revenue, however.
The council did not adopt the fee increase without also eliminating about 20 vacant positions.
"This is the first time since I've been on the council in six years that the council had to be this assertive as it pertains to the budget because of the short time we had to deliberate over the budget," Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler said. "Historically, we've gotten the budget bible by the end of July. This year we didn't see it until September."
The council cut mayor-appointed employees, capping economic consultant Jimmy Heidel's $150,000 annual pay to $50,000—a change that kicks in when Heidel's contract expires this year, and also eliminated the $74,000 part-time assistant chief administrative officer position of Melton's sister-in-law Carolyn Redd.
The council closed down the police department's finance division, moving one of the jobs to the administration department and eliminating five others.
The council voted to refinance the city's short-term debt, a contentious decision that will immediately add almost $5.3 million to the city's coffers. The re-financing plan will cost the city an extra $800,000 over the next five years.
The $113,000-salaried city attorney, Sarah O'Reilly-Evans, will get extra money in attorney fees for her service in the debt-restructuring plan, thanks to a controversial stipulation in her employment contract allowing her to collect extra money for bond writing. Administration Director Rick Hill could not say this early what initial costs would be.
Newly elected Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill was the single vote against the debt re-financing.
Weill said last week he was leery of the possible impact the re-financing plan would have on the city's credit rating for future bond projects, and spoke against heaping more debt upon the younger generations.
On a brighter note, the council managed to save Parks and Recreation from some extreme cuts, opting instead for more modest reductions. Melton had suggested $1 million in cuts to JATRAN, eliminating almost 15 jobs and dismantling bus routes to Metrocenter Mall and other destinations. The council instead opted to trim the JATRAN budget by about $200,000.
The mayor had recommended tearing $800,000 from Parks and Recreation, but the council reduced that figure by about $650,000, cutting the division by only $167,000. The council also successfully pushed for a $200,000 increase to the Department of Code Enforcement, which council members hope will add at least three new code-enforcement officers to the woefully understaffed division.
The council could not act upon some aspects of the mayor's recent shortfall adjustment, most notably the mayor's suggestion to turn over the management of the city's golf courses to private companies, an adjustment that must go through the regular bi-monthly council process.
Council members also had some doubts about the mayor's ability to crack down on misdemeanor fines. Melton had delivered the adjustment to the council earlier this month, after council members questioned his inconsistency. Melton came out against the budget he proposed two weeks ago—despite having signed it—because he did not favor the $2.6 million tax increase he authorized. The new budget approved by the council does not contain the tax increase, instead mandating the aforementioned fee increases.
The mayor is moving forward with his crackdown on fines announcing at a Sept. 17 press conference that the city will work with Hinds County deputies on tagging the vehicles of those who owe fines, targeting nicer vehicles first. Melton said the tagged cars will head to the city impound lot to wait for owners to cough up the fines. Owners will have 90 days, according to the mayor, before the city sells the vehicles for profit—a plan that may not be legal.
An Aug. 17, 1981, attorney general's opinion states that "no authority exists for a municipality to impound vehicles for nonpayment of traffic fines."
Other issues sucking away at the city's fiscal stability this year is the continuing drop in population, fueling a subsequent drop in sales receipts, as well as an $800,000 drop in public franchise fees, which the city collects through regular utility company bills.
Funny, Ben was getting on people who are blaming the Council for this Budget mess, and he is right. But, to try to say that we should complain (whine as he said) without having gone to a meeting is ludicrous, and un-American! Do you think folks in the Colonies didn't bitch about some of stuff they did in Philadelphia forming the County? Where did these people get their information? THE PRESS, and the messengers of the government.
Today, we have TV, radio, and press that the masses rely on for proper information about our government. In many places all of your meetings would be live on the internet! We can even watch Council meetings on channel 18, so you have NO business using the "they don't come to meetings, so don't whine" excuse.
With that said, if people like Ben don't ask for more accountably from the press and from his government you will have statements like this become fact among the voters:
Other unfilled vacancies were eliminated throughout the city, bringing to 15 the number of job losses, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Walker said.
"We are currently meeting on the scenarios that were created by council actions, and we are fine-tuning what the options are for us. We, therefore, won't be making any contact with anyone until we are comfortable with the options that we feel are available to us," Walker said. "And obviously, when we get those, we will present them to the mayor for his review and observations."
This is the second time in a week Robert "failure" Walker has heaped the blame on the Council. And, he GOES to the meetings Ben! So, be sure to look at the big picture before you try to disparage free thought by saying we shouldn't whine about our government without going to the meetings.
That would be "shouldn't complain"