City faces reducing departmental requests

Published 12:28 pm Friday, July 16, 2010

While income for Vicksburg’s 2011 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, is expected to be slightly lower than this year’s $31.1 million, departmental money requests for the coming year are, as usual, running higher.

Mayor Paul Winfield has pledged no tax hikes or mass employee layoffs, meaning department heads won’t get everything they want.

“We’re going to have to make some difficult changes over the next few weeks,” Winfield said Thursday after meeting with heads of the police, fire, ambulance and municipal court departments. “There are going to be some changes.”

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A spending plan must be adopted by Sept. 15, according to state law. Winfield said he anticipates money-centered meetings with department heads continuing through early August. A public hearing on the budget is set for 7 p.m. Aug. 26.

Police Chief Walter Armstrong, joined by Deputy Chiefs John Dolan and Mitchell Dent are asking for $300,000 more than the $6.5 million for police operations this year. Armstrong began his pitch by noting several savings the department has identified this year — including $7,000 by using a new shooting range location, $20,000 by switching to digital cameras instead of developing film and lower bills due to energy conservation efforts.

“We did see a need for some increases in other areas of our budget, one of them being salaries and fuel. We now have more officers than we’ve had in recent years and more vehicles,” the chief said, noting 79 officers on the force.

Of the $6.84 million request, just shy of $5 million would be spent on personnel — about $400,000 more than anticipated personnel spending this year. Also included in the department’s request is $840,000 for 24 new cars. Dolan noted the department anticipates needing less funding for office supplies, program supplies, membership fees, uniforms and vehicle maintenance.

“There were some items in here that no one was looking at; it was just a total waste of money, and I cut all that stuff out,” the deputy chief said.

Police also anticipate spending about $275,000 to ferry prisoners to and from Vicksburg, most commonly to Issaquena County — about $25,000 less than last year — due to new ticketing policies. The department has drawn up tickets specifically for offenses against the city code such as noise violations, open container and curfew violation. On the uniform, state-issued tickets currently being used, there’s no option to cite someone for such violations without making an arrest, the chiefs said. The Issaquena detention facility is used because the Warren County Jail is almost always full.

“What we were doing was taking people all the way up to the Delta to lock them up for something like not having a license,” Armstrong explained. “So what we’re doing is revamping an ordinance ticket so we can issue citations and not take them all the way up to the Delta for a $40 ticket.”

The chiefs also said the department’s entire weapons cache needs to be replaced, but said they’re coming up with a way to do that at no cost to the city. All the sidearm pistols used by the officers were bought in 1992. To finance new weapons, the chiefs said they intend to swap or sell hundreds, possibly thousands, of guns in the department’s inventory that have been confiscated by offenders over the past 40 years. The weapons have to be cleared by a local judge — about 600 already have been — and sold or swapped through a firearms dealer, they said.

Meanwhile, 13 Tazers purchased by police in the current budget for approximately $13,000 should begin to be issued within the next month, Armstrong said, noting all officers have been trained to use the stun guns and will have to submit to being shocked themselves in order to carry the non-lethal weapons.

City Accountant Doug Whittington said revenues estimates will likely be between $30 and $31 million for fiscal year 2011, though he noted his calculations are still being finalized. The city is running on a $31.5 million operating budget in the current year, with about $7.2 million coming from sales taxes, $6.2 million from property taxes, $6 million from casino taxes and the rest from various fees, reimbursements and grants.

Also meeting with the mayor and aldermen Thursday were Fire Chief Charles Atkins and Deputy Chiefs Mark Hales and Kenneth Daniels, who presented proposed fire and ambulance budgets about $392,000 higher than the collective $8.44 million budgeted for those departments this year.

“I need ambulances,” said Atkins, whose budgets include $180,000 for a new rescue vehicle and $230,000 for two new ambulances.

The department currently has four frontline ambulances to serve the city and the county, which reimburses the city for runs outside city limits. Payments to the city for county runs this year will total about $665,700, said County Administrator John Smith. Six aging backup ambulances are available in emergency situations, Atkins said.

A new fire station under construction at the Vicksburg Municipal Airport on U.S. 61 South is expected to be finished in five to six months. When complete, two more personnel per shift will be needed at the very least, the chiefs said. Of the combined $8 million budgeted for both departments this year, about $6.5 million is being spent on personnel.

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman wasn’t making any promises about all the requests for new vehicles and equipment, considering revenues could likely fall in the coming fiscal year.

“We’ve got to find that fine line where we can give the best service we can possibly give, not kill our employees by overworking them and be able to pay for it,” Beauman told the fire chiefs. “I’ve always said if we have to cut, let’s cut back on new vehicles and equipment. The police department is asking for $840,000 for new vehicles. Do they need them? Probably — but how many can we afford? Those are the tough decision we have to make.”

Municipal Court Judge Nancy Thomas, who met with the mayor and aldermen before the police and fire chiefs, offered a few upgrades in her department that could generate more revenue for the city.

“We need the ability to draft out of peoples’ bank accounts who owe money for fines and tickets,” the judge said. “I think they would do it if we told them we were not going to work out a payment schedule unless they agree to let us draft it out of their account.”

Thomas also said an online payment system would likely boost some payments from out-of-town offenders. Currently, the municipal court does not have a page on the city’s website. Both payment options would require some software expense, said Thomas, but she noted both have been successful for other municipalities in the state.

Thomas has estimated about 7,000 people have outstanding fines totaling about $3 million owed to the city, with some of the unpaid tickets and fines dating to 20 years. Whittington estimated Thursday that 80 percent to 90 percent of all fines and tickets go unpaid in the city.

The city collected $57,112 from 77 people during a four-month fine amnesty period this year. In exchange for making payments, the debtors had arrest warrants suspended. The program will be brought back again in the coming year, Thomas said.

Thomas’ only major expenditure request was for a flat screen television for her courtroom. Currently, she said, any video evidence must be viewed on her laptop computer, meaning she, attorneys and defendants must all crowd around the bench to look at it together.

If you go

A public hearing on the city’s budget is set for 7 p.m. Aug. 26.