Vicksburg to stick with $3.5M spending plan|[08/21/2008]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vicksburg officials unveiled a proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 Wednesday night at a public hearing that drew about 25 citizens and few comments pertaining specifically to the budget.

Though Warren County supervisors will not hold a similar hearing separate from its 9 a.m. adoption hearing Sept. 2, final preparations on the county’s budget for fiscal 2008-09 began today, as supervisors decide how $1.4 million in added tax revenue will be spent.

Strategic Planner Paul Rogers presented an overview of the city budget, which he said has only minor changes from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s current ledger. Although the total revenue and expenditures appear to be up by about $2.6 million on paper, Rogers said the numbers reflect a state-mandated shift in accounting methods and not an expanding budget.

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“It all nets out to the same thing,” Rogers said.

The city will operate on $31.5 million in projected revenue with expenditures totaling about $100,000 less. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen will also adopt their budget Sept. 2. The city anticipates 23.1 percent of its revenue to come in the form of sales taxes, 21.5 percent from property taxes, 21.7 percent from gaming income and the rest from service fees, state and county sources.

At a glanceCounties in Mississippi reassess 25 percent of their respective land rolls each year and the higher values mean higher taxes and more money for the county and school treasuries without changing the tax rate, which supervisors have the authority to do. On homestead property, parcels are assessed at 10 percent of the true value. All other property, including commercial, agricultural and rental, is assessed at 15 percent. Tax bills result from multiplying that figure by the millage rate, currently 83.94 mills with 37.74 for general county support and 46.2 for the Vicksburg Warren School District. The City of Vicksburg millage is set separately, and has been set at 35.88 mills since 1999. This year, supervisors will consider adopting a budget that raises the millage rate to 86.99 mills. General county support would make up 40.79 mills if plans are adopted.The third local entity relying on property taxes, the Vicksburg Warren School District, adopted its budget in June and later reduced its funding request filed with supervisors in order to keep the tax millage for schools level.

“Vicksburg is still enjoying a very strong economy,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens. “We have a record number of construction permits. Our sales tax is a little over 2 percent over last year. Our tourism numbers are a little over 5 percent over last year, and our gaming tax revenue is down .61 percent.”

However, countywide growth reflected in the total value of taxable property rose only about one-half percent in this year’s reassessments, compared with 3.5 percent for several years in a row. That, plus higher fuel costs, is prompting a tax increase by the county, more sensitive to changes in land values compared to the city coffers, which are more reliant on gains or losses in tourism and retail sales.

City officials have vowed to hold property taxes steady at 35.88 mills. Supervisors are expected to raise the county millage rate by 3.05 mills, translating into about $30 more on property tax bills for every $100,000 in assessed value this year. Inside the city, a homeowner who paid $898.20 this year would owe $928.20 in January. Outside the city, the same homeowner would pay $569.40, up from $539.40.

Destinations for the county’s added tax revenue include paying consulting firm Voorhis/Roberson Justice Services Inc. to begin plans for a new jail. More than $136,000 has been set aside in the board’s line item for the initial payments. A report is expected from the company within a year and a bond issue to pay for capital costs will likely be stretched over a 10-year period.

Leyens said the city spent roughly $450,000 last year to have inmates held in Issaquena County and Hattiesburg. Routine transfers led the city to purchase a 2009 Ford E350 cargo van and insert in April, which together cost $38,840.

Rising fuel costs in the sheriff’s and road departments command another visible boost, where a combined $275,000 is needed to make up shortfalls compared to last year’s fuel allocations. Additional overtime pay for sheriff’s deputies is also included in current versions of the budget. Also, the six volunteer fire departments are up for an extra $12,000 to cover gasoline costs along with a possible redistribution of funds among them.

The city spent $1 million more for gasoline this year than projected, said Rogers, but the proposed budget does not anticipate major increases in gas expenses for next year. Four mini-trucks, which can get up to 60 miles per gallon, were purchased in July by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for use in the landscaping and cemetery departments. South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman admitted the immediate savings by using mini-trucks will likely be slim, but said if they prove effective the city could experience major savings down the line.

Although the city’s fifth casino is set to open around the start of the fiscal year, Rogers pointed out lowered gaming tax revenue expectations for next year by nearly $200,000 due to a over-calculation of projected gaming tax revenue for this year. Leyens said if more revenue comes in than anticipated, budget amendments will be made for additional expenditures.

“We thought the best way to approach the budget is to be very conservative, see what the economy does and make adjustments when we can,” he said. “I’m not opposed to doing budget amendments every meeting if we have to, which we’re basically doing already.”

Another item in the county budget anticipates costs for continuing city-run ambulance service for residents outside Vicksburg corporate limits. Those costs relate to recent figures showing runs running higher than the 400 calls in years leading up to the most recent agreement, which calls for a flat $300 per-run fee.

The city is projecting slightly less spending on ambulance service next year, partly based on better collections and fewer expenditures on supplies.

Other costs to county government reflect either increases in state retirement shares, court orders or changes enabled by the Legislature.

Autopsy fees to the coroner through payments and reimbursements of state crime lab funds will add $40,000 to expenditures. Supervisors have favored raising the salary for the county prosecutor according to a law passed by state lawmakers last session, but have not agreed on exactly how much.

Cutbacks in infrastructure improvements stem from postponing some repairs, such as a new roof for the courthouse and carpeting in Vicksburg Warren County Library.

Spending on the police and fire departments in the city will increase due to 3 percent raises approved for employees this summer, as well as the purchase of 12 to 14 new police cruisers for roughly $400,000.

Animal control could emerge as a concern during the year. Vicksburg Warren Humane Society members are expected to decide whether to designate an animal control officer or ask the county to renegotiate its $125,000-a-year contract to house and collect stray animals. Discussion has centered on paying a county employee to answer calls involving vicious animals or to agree on handling it from within the nonprofit organization.

The city is doing away with spending on the planning department, said Rogers, but employees and services will be transferred to the inspections department. A new department is being formed for emergency management, which was formerly funded through the fire department.

Donations to charitable groups by the county are set to receive about $20,000 more this year through current and pending approval from the state. About $600,000 went to such organizations last year. Groups that could see more funding include Keep Vicksburg-Warren Beautiful, Community Council of Warren County, which delivers meals to the elderly, and Warren Washington Issaquena Sharkey Community Action Agency, which defrays the cost of energy bills for low-income earners.

In attendance at the city’s session Wednesday night was Paul Winfield, the county board attorney who has said he will run against Leyens for mayor in next July’s election. Although Leyens directly asked Winfield for his comments on the budget, Winfield said he was at the meeting only as a concerned citizen and would save his comments for another time. Only three people addressed the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, with Leyens continually reiterating the discussion was to be about the budget and not other issues facing the city. John Shorter, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Washington Street resident Mark Werner and former North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young were among those who made remarks.

Young asked the board why there was no money budgeted for affordable housing and first time home-buyer programs as there has been in the past. Leyens said the federal funding had been cut entirely and the city would have to see if additional revenue would come in to support those programs.

“That will be a budget amendment coming forward when it’s time,” he said.

In October 2007, Leyens voiced concern over whether housing program results justified their expense.