Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton and the city administration got their wish from the council in a 3-to-2 vote in favor of raiding $3 million from the city's $7 million budget reserve fund to fix a lingering hole in the 2007 budget. The raid may not be enough to cover still more holes, as the city struggles to pay the federal government back for about $520,000 in law enforcement grants.
The grants, awarded between 1998 and 2004, are a new issue plaguing the budget.
Director of Administration Rick Hill told the council that the city spent some of the grant money outside the window of time the federal government had allotted for it, while other money was not spent at all.
During the last week of budget hearings, the council bit its tongue and approved the repayment of $284,969 in federal grant money that Hill said the city had also spent after the federal deadline. Now the city may have to repay the U.S. government an additional $206,000, as well as a separate $29,000 grant, with no explanation for the mishap.
Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler said he was dismayed at the loss, but not surprised.
"In the last year they shut down the entire grants writing division, so I don't know what the plan was. What would you have the council do? How would we know whether or not the administration has not been taking care of those grants? That's what the administration does. It takes care of its grants. That's not what the part-time council does," Crisler said, adding that the news of the additional $236,000 in grant re-imbursement reached his ears only this week.
Former city employees LaSeine Hunter Hilliard, Meisha Jones and Stanley Murray left the city's Grants Division in 2005 and filed a civil action against the city for alleged termination against Civil Service rules and state law later that year. The city's last remaining full-time grant writer, Lisa Lucas, jumped ship in December 2006, days after Melton vowed to WAPT that he would fire some members of city government.
The money is likely the remnants of a law enforcement block grant split between the city and the county during the administration of former Mayor Harvey Johnson, but the Melton administration lost sight of the money when it took the reins in 2004.
"When Melton came in, he changed the structure. They didn't see a need for grantsmanship in the city, and I think, in part, that was fueled by a need to dismiss personalities associated with the Harvey Johnson administration," Ward 2 Councilman Leslie McLemore said. "But obviously we do need a grants person for the city, and more grants people in individual departments because we are obviously missing out on opportunities."
The council was already beating its head over the $3 million reserve raid last week, which did not take into account the city's new expenses.
"I don't like the idea of taking money out of the fund, but I don't see any other way to deal with (the shortfall)," Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said last Friday.
The council authorized a $5.3 million short-term debt-refinancing plan to counter a roughly $4 million shortfall in the incoming 2008 budget, before the Sept. 15 deadline—but then had to deal with a remaining $3 million shortfall left over from the 2007 budget. With three days before the Sept. 30 deadline, the council had few options beyond the reserve raid.
Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill argued that raiding the reserve would hurt the city's interest rates on future bond projects, and negatively affect the city's standing with financing agencies. "I still oppose dipping into the reserve fund," Weill said. "I just don't think that's sound business practice."
Council members voted against an earlier long-term debt-refinancing plan last month.
Weill said that he voted that plan down while under the assumption that the administration was capable of presenting options other than simply tapping the reserve. Weill said he would have preferred the administration present more downsizing possibilities. He maintained that attitude minutes before the vote.
"Folks need to know that Jackson is a lot smaller a town than it was 10 years ago, and we cannot continue to fund through ad valorem taxes what we used to do," Weill said, adding that he hoped the city would continue to look for ways to cut unnecessary staff.
The council approved a budget last month that called for the shaving of some city positions, with hard cuts to the police department's finance division. Hill told The Clarion-Ledger this week that the city will preserve those positions, however, at a cost of almost $180,000.
Tension was obvious last week when Crisler corrected the mayor for incorrectly identifying a special council meeting that day as a budget meeting. Melton, who was talking to a reporter, replied to Crisler, "I'm not talking to you …godd*mned idiot," The Clarion-Ledger reported.
Melton argues that shortfalls have always been issues with previous mayors, though council veterans say previous administrations acted in better time for council input on dealing with them. The last administration presented budget plans to the council in July or August—with attached options for potential "tweaking." Melton's administration, comparatively, submitted the final 2008 budget within days of the Sept. 15 deadline.