Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Last Friday, the City Council voted to raise taxes for city residents, even as the budget of the mayor's office jumped 41 percent over last year. In the last year, the city has moved to cut costs, including sharp cuts in overtime pay, a promotion freeze in some departments and a drastic call by Mayor Frank Melton for every city department—except the police—to cut its budget by 5 percent.
Meanwhile, costs in the mayor's office soared 41.3 percent over last year. The mayor's office was projected to cost $496,672 in 2006. Costs ran to $811,641, however, even though the mayor's office had the same number of staff. The 2007 proposed budget allots $701,677 for those 11 staff members.
To counter shortfalls, council members quietly voted to impose tax increases on city residents, while the city's mayor dominated the media with news of his indictments. Five council members voted to support a two-mill property tax hike to hire more police officers and firefighters, repave streets and increase city employee salaries. Home owners within the city limits can now expect to see an extra $10 cost on their annual property-tax bill for a $100,000 home and $6 more on a car tag for a vehicle costing around $20,000.
The tax hike will produce more than $2 million in extra revenue for the city, which has been tapping reserves to pay for services like garbage collection.
Chief Administrative Officer Robert Walker explained that the two-mill tax increase is not permanent.
"One of those two mills will sunset at two years and, so that $10 that goes on will come off in two years," Walker said, adding that the tax increase, in particular, will fund city projects that rate as high priorities among voters, such as public safety and street paving.
This may not allay the concerns of some taxpayers, however, especially since the tax hike comes on the heels of a dramatic fee increase earlier that week.
On Wednesday, the council voted 4-0 in favor of fee hikes on everything licenses for nude dance clubs to fees for ballpark use. The fees also include increases in various city permits, including a doubling of fees for written zoning verifications (from $10 to $20), increases on demolition permits (from $75 to $100) and an increase in city copies of accident reports (from $15 to $25). The fee increase is projected to generate an extra $500,000 for the city.
Director of Administration Peyton Prospere argued that the fee increases were needed to stave off further use of the city's budget reserve fund. By October, Prospere predicted that the city's reserves will be down to about $5 million for fiscal 2007. Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. told the JFP that the city's reserve was $6 million when he left in July 2005.
Bonding agencies take the amount of money in a city's expendable reserve fund into account when setting interest rates for loans for projects such as street repair and new construction.
Only two council members voted against Friday's tax increase. Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said the tax burden would fall too heavily upon the poorer residents of his ward, while Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler said the budget was too rushed to give a vote of support in good confidence.
"I didn't have enough information to make a vote on anything. None of us did. That's why I voted against it. I want too make that very clear," Crisler said. "Usually we have these budget meetings spread out through August and September, but we substituted those meetings for little special private meetings with the staff. That's unacceptable. Not everybody can get their schedules lined up."
Council President Ben Allen admonished Crisler for not attending every budget hearings at the City Council meeting last Tuesday, but Crisler complained that the mayor's administration only handed the council a line-item budget on the day of the vote.
"For the past few years, the mayor's administration has always handed us what I call the 'budget Bible' as soon as they decide we're in the budget process. We get a line item-by-line item breakdown of the budget, department by department, and that's given to (us) so that (we) can go through it during the meetings but also read it at home. I only got a copy of this on Friday when we voted on the budget." Crisler complained.
Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said he provided the line-item budget to council members at least a month before the September vote whenever possible.
"We tried to develop an executive budget and present that budget in time to the city council for them to have hearings and question the executive branch, including department heads," Johnson said.
Only four council members were present to approve the fee hikes. Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman, Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon, Ward 4 Councilman Frank Bluntson and Council President Ben Allen were enough for a quorum.
Allen—traditionally wary of tax and fee increases in past administrations—has moved toward compromise to preserve the city's bond rating for the benefit of projects such as the Capital City Convention Center, which enjoyed a half-percent lower bond charge this year thanks to a good rating.
Allen predicts that new development such as the King Edward Hotel and the incoming Capitol Green project will boost tax revenues two years down the road.
Any Council for a City that sits with their mouths closed while the mayor spends $1,000/day running the Mobile Command Unit and pays salaries for people who do not deserve them will certainly not have my vote for a tax increase. So why is Crysler crying now about not having reveived a budget with the line items on it prior to last Friday. There is just no way to keep from holding the Council responsible for these issues. The community was never told if melton paid the City back for his trip with his guest to the Bahamas. ($1,800.00) It is evident that this man (melton) has run a financial nightmare on this City while the council sat back and allowed him to do it. How many people received a call from their Councilperson? Where did the secret meetings occur??? People in Pearl, Madison, Clinton and Brandon are boasting about how good their cities/towns are doing secondary to economic development , mayors baing mayors,police chiefs being police chiefs, good budget planning and their dependency on residents of Jackson buying everything from scoops to nuts from them. Just remember that the Mayor can only ask, the council is the body that gives. Now that these idiots have given away this City to an empty wagon, don't expect my apples to help fill it up - only to be emptied again. TRANSLATION: The City Council is the Governing Body of the City. They are ultimately responsible for the financial condition of this City.