Leyens lauds departments, would like to see tax hike|[7/30/06]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mayor Laurence Leyens called Vicksburg’s proposed budget, one that needs to shed a relatively modest $2.5 million in requests above projected revenue &#8220the best I’ve seen in five years.”

Leyens added, however, that he wants to ask municipal taxpayers to make a &#8220philosophical” decision during the budget process: raise taxes to free up more money for projects, cut services, including jobs, to free up money, or continue to pay 70 percent of the city budget in payroll.

&#8220This will be a very easy process this year. We’re going to have a balanced budget,” Leyens said last week, praising department heads for realistic requests before the start of the board’s budget planning meetings on Thursday and Friday. &#8220But if I can get some vocal people to say we ought to raise taxes, I could definitely support a tax increase.”

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The fiscal year for the city and the county begins Oct. 1, by which time both must have approved balanced budgets. State law also requires a public hearing before the adoption of any budget by a local government.

The city has not raised taxes in Leyens’ administration, but has raised utility rates and other fees. Last year, the city completed its transfer of all utility costs to customers by raising gas bills 25 percent, water by 15 percent, sewer by 5 percent and garbage collection by $2.10 per month.

The tax levy remained level at 35.88 mills plus 5.05 mills for property in the downtown taxing district.

The Leyens administration has also cut and consolidated municipal jobs, including a controversial elimination of the entire Human Services Department – and its $560,000-plus payroll – from last year’s budget.

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield dissented from Leyens and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman in both the vote to increase utility rates and eliminate the department.

&#8220I’m not going to support a tax increase in any way, shape, form or fashion,” Mayfield said last week. &#8220I agree with him that the payroll is becoming a great portion of the actual operating budget, but we’re going to have to sit down to the table and come up with a happy medium.”

Though the city does not yet have a firm figure for a 2006-07 proposal, planning and administration have fielded capital and supplies and services requests from department heads. Totaling those requests with its expected $19.9 million payroll, the city’s unofficial budget projection for the upcoming fiscal year is roughly $29.9 million, up $2 million from FY05-06.

Those requests will likely be whittled down to fit the total in the current general fund, which city Strategic Planner and Accountant Paul Rogers said contains a little more than $27.26 million.

Some requests, like the Police Department’s $100,000 proposal to buy 962 street barriers for parade routes, have already been singled out for the ax, Leyens said, with others to follow as planning becomes more involved in coming weeks. Unless additional funding can be found through federal grants or other appropriations, Rogers said a $1.6 million generator for the Water Treatment Plant – which could keep the plant online for a few hours while Entergy responds during outages – is also not likely to wind up in the final budget.

&#8220The requests are very realistic,” Leyens said, adding that requests his first year in office were $12 million over projected revenue. &#8220People are not asking for stupid stuff.”

The problem, in Leyens’ view, is that too much of the city’s budget is tied up in personnel, which he says stems from both a successful merit pay system that’s driven some salaries up and a surplus of jobs he considers outside the proper role of government.

&#8220If I can’t reduce payroll, then I’d like to raise taxes so we can have more dollars for projects,” Leyens said, emphasizing that he would not approve of reducing any employee’s salary. &#8220It would be premature to start talking about specific services, but what I’m talking about is eliminating services and jobs that are not part of the core government. There’s a whole series of jobs that don’t make any sense.”

Mayfield, however, said he thought the payroll could come down in the next few years due to attrition as some long-tenured and higher-paid employees reach retirement age. Rogers, the city’s highest-paid employee at $150,000 annually, has said he plans to retire in the next year.

&#8220After being with the city a year now, I don’t see where we have any room to lose employees. I think the employees we have now are pretty much stretched out to the limit,” said Mayfield, elected to the board in 2005 after serving three terms as supervisor for District 2. &#8220How can you afford to cut employees and you’re continuing to expand your workload?”.

Numbers fluctuate weekly based on regular turnover, but Human Resources Director Lamar Horton said Thursday the city currently has 522 full-time employees on its payroll. That number is equal to about 2 percent of Vicksburg’s estimated 26,000 population.

Although he left open the option of retaining &#8220the status quo” – continuing to pay the current percentage of revenue towards payroll – Leyens said the city was in its best financial shape of his administration, and poised to improve efficiency by taking whatever steps necessary to free up more money for services and projects.

&#8220When you say you want to raise taxes, people get upset. When you say you want to cut services, people get upset,” he said. &#8220We’re missing out on a good economy. This is the moment to seize…If you don’t trust us and you don’t want your taxes raised, then let’s cut services or do nothing.”