County budget OK’d, employees getting pay raises City delays vote on fiscal plan

Published 11:45 am Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pay raises for approximately 270 Warren County employees and funding for a third assistant district attorney survived the final cut in a $14.8 million budget adopted by county supervisors Tuesday, the same day Vicksburg officials delayed a vote on a $28.79 million budget discussed with little dissent less than two weeks ago.

Raises and the extra prosecutor are funded by a mix of higher expected revenues from public utilities and spending cuts that created a net surplus of $111,582 in the county’s general fund. Net spending comes in $917 lighter overall, while estimated revenues total $110,665 more than last year’s budget.

“Highlights of the expenses are the 3 percent across-the-board raise, $300,000 continuous allocations for indigent representation in circuit court… and the district attorney’s third assistant will be funded — at the level the state provided in this previous year,” County Administrator John Smith said during a 10-minute verbal summary of the budget.

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Property tax millage rates levied by the county and the Vicksburg Warren School District will hold steady this year, at 40.53 mills and 46.2 mills, respectively. The city’s rate, 35.88 mills, is thought to be solid despite the delayed vote.

City Clerk Walter Osborne, one of four candidates for chancery clerk, said the board is expected to approve a budget Friday nearly identical to the one presented to the public Aug. 25. City Accountant Doug Whittington, who lost the GOP primary Aug. 23 for that office, said he wanted to take another look at the budget before giving it to the board.

Mayor Paul Winfield said he will be in New Orleans and not attend the Friday meeting. Winfield is attending Tulane University’s 18-month Executive MBA Program in January to earn a master’s of business administration. He said he has tests scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

Assessments by the Mississippi Department of Revenue on public utilities, including power companies and railroads, came in $3.4 million higher than last year. Much of the uptick came from higher assessments on Entergy Mississippi and Southern Natural Gas Co. Funds requested by the school system grew by $182,242 to reflect the higher assessments, totaling $26,326,988.

Net spending is pegged less than last year due to a mix of various cuts, largest of which involves a $121,225 slice of the jail budget to ensure raises spread to 17 jail staffers and 42 upper-level investigators and deputies in the sheriff’s department. Those cuts were tied to hopes that strides in recent months to keep the jail slightly under its 118-bed capacity continue — $33,000 in cuts derived from food, housing and medical care costs. In 2010, the county had awarded a contract to privatize nursing and medical care for inmates, but the deal fell through on the issue of advance payments. A staff nurse was rehired, with a stricter policy on emergency visits.

Raises were lobbied heavily by Sheriff Martin Pace and Road Department Manager Richard Winans during budget talks this summer. Entry-level pay for patrol deputies should rise to $28,708, from $27,872, while annual salaries for laborers and helpers on the road should grow to $17,510 with the 3 percent hike. Administrative pay in the Road Department also is slated to rise to about $75,000 with the raise. Sheriffs’ salaries in Mississippi are set by state law — in Warren’s case, at $78,000.

A third ADA’s salary is budgeted to total $73,833.98, including benefits. It restores funds equal to what a federal anti-crime grant had paid the position until last year. DA Ricky Smith had lobbied for a package of more than $102,000 so criminal case loads could keep pace with 2010, when a federal anti-crime grant funded a third assistant and the office completed 74 percent more cases than it did four years prior.

Money from Vicksburg’s five casinos is off about $105,000 in the county’s budget. Funding for five new vehicles in the sheriff’s department is included in spending items listed in the gaming fund for the new fiscal year, as is $900,000 for any road and bridge repairs and $185,000 for new aerial photographs for tax maps.

Smith told a silent board he expects car tag fee reimbursements from the state to drop a second time in as many years, based on the past 12 months of actual collections and due to a continually lagging economy. If current projections hold, auto assessments in Warren County will have dropped more than $11 million in three years, Smith said. The budget also allows for possible cuts in homestead exemption reimbursements from the state.

“This indicates how fragile the mindset is to the confidence level on the local economy,” Smith said.

Monday’s hearing — held at the same 9 a.m., start-of-the-work-week time slot — generated no comments after Board President Richard George’s call for oratory. About a dozen people, all but two being county staffers or contractors, attended the session in supervisors’ third-floor meeting room inside the courthouse. Only three signatures appeared on a sign-in sheet when the hearing ended. Ten people, all city employees or heads of public agencies that receive city funds, attended the City of Vicksburg’s budget hearing Aug. 25, held at 7 p.m.

De Reul and John Arnold, both candidates for seats on the Board of Supervisors this year, watched the meeting. Arnold, who ousted District 1 Supervisor David McDonald in the Republican primary Aug. 2, exchanged cordial handshakes after the meeting as Smith gathered signatures to add after the fact.

Complaining that supervisors hold the public hearing and approve the budget in essentially one meeting, Reul said, “I have questions now,” as supervisors filed out of the room. “Now that I have a chance to read it!”

General fund dollars fund seven departments under the Board of Supervisors direct purview, 15 offices or functions run by other elected officials and 23 other line items that receive local tax revenue, such as subsidies for ambulance service and fire protection.