No clear direction on city budget

“Hanging by a thin thread,” the City of Starkville’s budget was left Tuesday with no direction after a series of failed votes by the Board of Aldermen.
“Something’s got to give,” said Mayor Parker Wiseman as another meeting was scheduled for next week to further discuss the budget.
“The budget picture has worsened since our work session on Wednesday,” the mayor said, opening a lengthy deliberation on how to address another budget gap, after last year’s nearly million dollar shortfall that was fixed without raising taxes.
Vice Mayor Sandra Sistrunk offered three options Tuesday by which the city’s business could continue running.
“Our fiscal responsibility is to put money back into the ending fund balance,” Sistrunk said, while presenting “Option 1,” which included a 1.5-mill ad valorem tax increase that would generate about $280,000.
This option would give city employees a 1 percent salary increase, begin to staff the new Fire Station No. 5 and aid in rebuilding the budget’s ending fund balance, which has significantly been reduced in recent years.
None of the options included a funding increase for the city’s departments.
“And I’m so sorry,” Sistrunk told the department heads. “And none of these will begin to address the issues we will face in the coming years.”
“Option 2” included streamlining the city’s Landscaping Division, Public Services Department and Sanitation Department into an Environmental ServicesDepartment, resulting in an increased sanitation fee of $2.50 for a total fee of $13.
Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker said he could not find other municipalities that charge lower than $13 for sanitation services.
This option would give the city an extra $265,000.
The first option failed by a 2-5 vote with Sistrunk and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas voting for it.
The second failed by a 3-4 vote with Sistrunk, Parker and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey voting for it.
A revised “Option 2” that included the millage increase, excluded department streamlining but included a $65,000 contingency fund also failed by a 3-4 vote with Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Sistrunk and Corey voting in favor.
Carver said that after talking to his constituents, he would support a tax increase.
“Something has to be done when your ending fund balance has been decreased like it has,” Carver said.
In just three years, the city’s ending fund balance has decreased from $2.5 million to $230,000, raising eyebrows for Starkville’s bonding attorney, who warned the board of possible difficulties in getting future bonds approved.
But Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey hesitated on the idea of raising taxes, even by just 1.5 mills, based on the possibility that this administration could hold a referendum to issue bonds for a municipal complex that would more adequately house city staff, the Police Department and the Municipal Court system.
Division of the local 2010 tax pie allotted Oktibbeha County with 36 percent, the city schools 49 percent, leaving 15 percent for the City of Starkville.
The city received $3.5 million of that revenue, while $8 million went to the county, which puts $500,000 a year into the city’s roads.
“That doesn’t go too far, when you’re looking at infrastructure,” said Dumas. “We give them more than two times more than what we get.”
The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors raises property taxes in 2009 and is expected to do so again this year.
Based upon the millage collected by the city government, Starkville is one of the lowest taxed municipalities in the state, according to both recent surveys and the city’s 2005 comprehensive plan.
To continue the discussion, the board will meet again on Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the Sportsplex conference room on Lynn Lane.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy Á. Perkins said he favored none of Sistrunk’s options, that he would not vote for a tax increase and proposed cutting out all outside contributions to local entities such as the Oktibbeha County Humane Society, the Starkville Area Arts Council, the Starkville Public Library and the Mississippi Horse Park.
“We need to zero that line item,” he said.
Perkins said the city has donated a total of $836,237.85 to the Horse Park since 1998.
“We must have a stopping point,” he said.
Sistrunk, however, said that $280,000 generated from the 1.5 mill increase would be spread out over the entire city of Starkville.
“I think it’s easy to say we’re not going to do more for the city,” she said.
Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn then said that the citizens of Starkville would not be treated fairly and equally with the tax increase proposed on Tuesday.
Dumas challenged Vaughn to explain what he meant, and Vaughn declined.
Members of the public also had something to say in the debate.
“The residents of Starkville are taxed too much already,” said Jane Vemer during the meeting’s public comments portion.
But another citizen, Milo Burnham, said he’d rather pay for services he wants.
“I think the board needs to go to the max,” he said, arguing that 1.5 mill increase is not enough to fund Starkville’s city government operations.
The city’s annual budget must be approved by Sept. 15 as dictated by state law.