Mayor: Keep tight budget rein

Published 9:57 am Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The city’s fiscal 2016 budget isn’t fully one month old, but Mayor George Flaggs is already reminding Aldermen Michael Mayfield and Willis Thompson the board will have to keep a tight rein on spending if it hopes to present a 2017 budget without a tax increase.

“I want to really drill it home on how tough this year’s going to be as relates to budgeting,” Flaggs said at a Board of Mayor and Aldermen Work session Monday morning. “There’s a number of factors going on, and I hope that we can stick to the budget and not create any new programs, because the budget is tight.”

Flaggs outlined several areas, pointing out the 2016 budget has about $2.7 million in one-time funds dedicated to certain projects, and tax revenues are not meeting expectations.

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“The revenues are not coming in as fast as we thought. They may be coming in $200,000, $300,000 over a (previous) year, but if you add on any programs — new — that’s not in there, it’s going impact the budget.”

And unscheduled fire department overtime will continue to be a major issue as the board heads into budget talks in August. Fire department overtime totaled $813,535 in fiscal 2015, forcing the board to amend the fire department’s personnel budget by $300,000 to overcome a deficit in that line item.

The mayor said earlier this month if fire department overtime continued at the rate as is did in fiscal 2015 the board could be forced to raise property taxes in the 2017 budget, which is the last budget the board will pass before the 2017 municipal elections.

One of Flaggs’ recommendations for reducing overtime was closing Fire Station 7, which one pumper and was manned by two firefighters per shift, for six months out of the year beginning Feb.1. Fire Chief Charles Atkins countered with a plan to idle Truck No. 4, a pumper at the Central Fire Station, reassign the firefighters for that truck to Station 7, and use the two officers on the truck to supplement vacancies at other departments.

Atkins, who did not attend the work session, said Monday afternoon the move has helped with manpower issues but has not cut overtime.

At the work session, Flaggs presented an analysis of firefighter overtime for October, showing overtime for fiscal 2016 totaled $67,146.20, $3,473 more than the same period for fiscal 2015.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts. Under city policy, they work 2,912 hours a year and have 230 hours of overtime per year built into their pay, which is known as built-in overtime. Unscheduled overtime is overtime a firefighter receives if they are called to fill in for another firefighter because of illness or because a station is short-handed.

The fire department has 16 vacancies, which Fire Chief Charles Atkins said has been the main reason for the department’s overtime problems. Flaggs said the 2016 budget only includes six new firefighter positions for the department.

Atkins said Monday 23 of 34 applicants passed the agility portion of the entry level firefighter examination, adding the group will take the written portion of the exam Friday. “We’ll know how many (qualified) after that,” he said.

The chief said he can only put four entry level firefighters per class at the Mississippi State Fire Academy, adding it holds five to eight classes per year, depending on demand.

Flaggs said the city already has three entry-level firefighters at the academy, which is a 12-week course.

If more firefighters are added, said the city will have to pay the salaries.

“Up until six, you’ve got it covered, but anything over six is new money. That’s adding to the overtime, too,” he said, add the city would have to amend its budget to cover the increased cost.

Other budget issues discussed included:

• Halls Ferry tennis court expansion: No bid has been awarded for the project. The lowest base bid to build two tennis courts was $325,000 and the city has $320,000 in a state grant and city match, meaning the city will need $5,000 extra for the construction phase. City Accounting Director Doug Whittington said the money does not include construction oversight.

The city had planned to build four tennis courts. Flaggs said South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson suggested using some of the city’s $9.2 million bond money to build the extra courts, but cautioned against it.

“It looks like a lot of money now,” he said, “but I operate in the conservative end of ‘what if?’ My recommendation is we don’t move any of the money the first year except what is in the formula to spend, then you have safety when we go into next year.”

Whittington suggested using money from a $200,000 potential grant fund to make up the difference.

•Airport elevator project: The awarded bid was $266,100 plus $4,000 for engineering for a total of $270,000. The airport budget for the project is $150,000. Whittington suggested using $120,000 from the potential grants fund.

• JCI Holdings consulting fee for Champion Hill site at Fisher Ferry for a sports complex: $145.000 that contract remains in negotiation, but the money is not budgeted.

• Election for the 2 percent food and beverage and hotel tax to fund the sports complex: $50,000. The election will be held in 2016. It was not budgeted.

• Kuhn Hospital: The city is hoping to get a Mississippi Development Authority CAP loan for raze and clear the Kuhn Memorial Hospital site, which has been condemned by the city. The loan payments were not budgeted.

• Radios: The city and Warren County will split the cost of new radios that will put the city and count on the MSMIN statewide radio network.

The city’s share of the cost is estimated at $2.8 to $2.9 million and will be paid through lease purchase or a loan. Neither has been budgeted.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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