Rising gas common denominator in punching out city, county budgets|[07/27/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 27, 2008

Slower growth, spiraling fuel costs and funding a new jail are conspiring to create a prickly problem for Warren County and its tight-fisted fiscal policy.

The City of Vicksburg is facing similar budgetary challenges, due chiefly to rising gasoline prices, but Mayor Laurence Leyens said he is focused on tightening the belt instead of passing along increased costs to taxpayers.

“Our big challenge is how are we going to come up with $1 million for the additional cost of gasoline for our vehicles,” he said at Friday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen regular meeting. “The answer is not to raise taxes, but to dramatically change the way we do business.”

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Slow to amend the budget during the fiscal year as is done inside the city, county supervisors have found money in recent years to award across-the-board raises, continue road paving through the county’s gaming fund and secure approval from the Legislature to help fund a growing list of nonprofit groups.

“You can’t get more basic an operation than what we have,” Board President Richard George said.

For 2007-08, local government ran on a $15.2 million non-municipal budget and a $28.8 million budget inside Vicksburg, both of which contained no tax rate increases. Property taxes rose only through higher land values.

City in meetings

This year’s budget talks in the county reveal an end to easy decisions based on steady increases in land values. True values rose just .5 percent, down from a growth rate of about 3.5 percent the past five years.

In dollar figures, the smaller growth rate will yield only $38,224.89 in tax revenue for the county, according to early budget projections by County Administrator John Smith. Another statistic revealed a drop in fees collected on car tags, down to $71 million from $73.1 million a year ago – an early sign, Smith said, of the shift from larger, more expensive vehicles to smaller, more fuel-efficient ones.

The cumulative effect of the weak growth could result in diminished education spending and longer reviews of pay raises. Revenue sought by the Vicksburg Warren School District is expected to top $23 million a second time, but only a millage rate hike – sure to result in higher taxes – will save the district from losing more than $96,000 in funding this year, based on a $2 million drop in revenue from assessed land value.

“If anything will cause a tax increase this year, it’s the schools,” George said.

Schools squeeze

5 percent raises sought

Spending requests