Proposed city budget skirts reserves

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2000

For the first time in recent years, city officials presented a preliminary budget Thursday night that does not dip into cash reserves, but departing Alderman Sam Habeeb warned that it may rely on overly rosy revenue projections.

Between capital improvements, general operating funds and casino impact fees, the proposed budget adds up to about $30.3 million.

That’s slightly larger than the $30.1 million budget, including casino impact fees, that was approved last fall. But city officials tacked $5.9 million onto the 2000 budget in a series of budget amendments in February.

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The spending plan for the 12 months starting Oct. 1 was presented in a public hearing Thursday night, providing the public’s first chance to comment before the Mayor and Aldermen move to adopt it and set a tax rate sufficient to fund it.

Five non-officials attended, and three of them, Joe Loviza, Laurence Leyens and Eric Rawlings, have publicly discussed running for mayor. Another, John Thomason, is a candidate for county coroner. The fifth was Margaret Gilmer, president of the Vicksburg Warren Chamber of Commerce.

Mayor Robert Walker was out of town.

Much was made of the fact that no funds were taken from cash reserves in the budget. Last year’s original budget pulled $2.5 million from reserves, and after February’s amendments, $1.9 million more was used.

“It was the mayor’s intention to match incoming revenue with expenses and not rely on cash reserves at all,” said John Smith, the city accountant. “This budget reflects that philosophy.”

But North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young pointed out that the budget was not yet finished, and did not include any pay raises for city employees, or discuss capital items such as a new police precinct.

“Some of these issues are battling it out just because of the number of dollars available,” Young said. Despite the numbers, Young said she was confident the fiscal 2001 budget would come out smaller than the previous budget.

Habeeb, who has said he will not seek re-election next summer, said he was concerned because the budget estimated the city’s revenue at $23 million, $1 million more than this year’s estimate.

This year’s estimate turned out to be conservative, as the city actually took in about $25 million. But it’s better to be overly cautious than not cautious enough, Habeeb said.

“If we don’t hit that revenue right on target, there will be budget amendments later in the year,” he said.

Habeeb said although the budget isn’t finished, he is already leaning toward voting against it because it doesn’t show the restraint that he lobbied for in the areas of payroll and capital improvements.

Habeeb has voted against every city budget proposed since he has been in office. Each time he argues that the city is using capital improvement funds to build facilities, which will have to be maintained in later budgets.

“We’re still dependent on casino revenues for operating costs,” he said.

Habeeb also has issues with the city’s ever-expanding payroll, now estimated at $16 million. When Habeeb joined the board in 1997, the figure was $14 million. In 1990, before casinos and a large annexation, the entire city budget was $9.6 million.

While Smith asserted that $500,000 was cut from payroll this year, Habeeb said that savings came from recalculating expenses for worker’s compensation insurance, not from eliminating positions.

Leyens took the opportunity presented by the public hearing to challenge Young on one of the capital improvement projects included in the budget, the Jackson Street youth center project.

“Many of the people I have talked with don’t have a clear idea of what the mission statement or business plan for this facility is,” he said, suggesting a separate public hearing to discuss the matter.

“Now it would be a little moot, because it is getting ready to hit the dirt next month,” Young said.

The board received bids on construction of the center for the third time last week, and for the first time, several bids came in within the budget. Officials expect to award the contract within the next few weeks.

With Walker not present and Habeeb largely remaining silent, Young took on the role of defending the proposed budget during the hearing.

“It’s not like we’re just throwing money out there in the water,” she said at one point after a question on the city’s payroll. “We do try to be frugal.”

Final tinkering on the budget is yet to come, and a vote on a finished product will follow in the next few weeks.