With increased tax levy, budget looms with vote set

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The Hattiesburg City Council will decide Thursday whether to support first-year Mayor Toby Barker’s budget for the Hub City after members voted unanimously during a special meeting last week to increase the tax levy by 3 mills.

In an exclusive interview last week, Barker said he wanted to fulfill the commitments of the previous administration, while looking toward the city’s future with particular concern over public safety, pay increases and infrastructure. He said interim Chief Financial Officer Connie Everett worked diligently on the budget.

“Given where we were when we first got here and the financial challenges that we have had to sort of overcome with two new Councilmen, new mayor and interim CFO, I’m pleased that we went through a thorough process to get here,” he said. “From talking to Council members, it’s been the most inclusive, collaborative effort in terms of the needs of each ward and trying to hit some overall goals on our end as well.”

Each of the city’s five wards received important improvements in budgeted items:

• Ward 1 – 38th Avenue sidewalks and new fire station on U.S. 49 North (which will receive one of the 3 mills included in the tax levy).

• Ward 2 – Twin Forks Phase II study costing $80,000 and establishment of a Community Development Financial Institution to provide affordable lending services and promote development in the Twin Forks area at a cost of $150,000.

• Ward 3 – Midtown development, which includes 31st Avenue upgrades, Arlington Loop relocation and Regions Bank project.

• Ward 4 – Camp Street upgrades and acquisition of the former Hattiesburg American building and pursuing development of a Community Arts Center.

• Ward 5 – People’s Park pavilion, lighting at soccer fields and relocation and relocation of Fire Hall No. 2 (Depending on design and site location, FEMA and insurance will cover most of the cost).

Barker said the CDFI in Ward 2 is designed to promote and build up the area.

“The idea is that you use the settlement money from Hercules to benefit the area that was affected by Hercules,” he said. “(Everett) has got a good idea to create a kind of a downtown association for Twins Fork Rising. As opposed to doing one-time capital projects, she is trying to set up a mechanism that can be a sustaining influence and a catalyst for that area. I think it’s a wise idea. We will probably need to get Local and Private legislation to be able to donate to make that investment. I think it’s an innovative idea that could be very sustainable.”

Previous projects that were started during former Mayor Johnny DuPree’s years in office are also included in the budget, such as the Regions project and the District at Midtown.

“Between those two projects, there is about $3 million that the city will have to come up with,” Barker said. “Some of that the city will get back through some grant money. It meets those commitments; it actually budgets for some of the things we did with Johnson Controls. In terms of just being fiscally responsible, it brings our ending cash balance in our next fiscal year back up to $3 million. We want that to be up at $4 million, but given some of the things that happened in this past fiscal year, we are going to end with $2.2 million, which will get us back to $3 million.”

Steps to battle the crumbling streets and the aging water system are also in the budget, Barker said.

“It makes some pretty bold investments in infrastructure: $2.3 million for paving, which is $100,000 more than the current budget, and $29.1 million for water and sewer projects,” he said. “That’s where I think you are going to see a lot of dirt turning over the next year. Brown water is a big concern of our neighborhoods and this administration, so this takes some significant steps to starting to alleviate that.”

Barker said public safety will be a major component in the budget, starting with the U.S. Hwy. 49 North fire station and the Public Safety Complex, which has come under scrutiny.

“We are kind of behind the eight ball right now because we are about to be surveyed again by the Fire Rating Bureau,” he said. “We knew what we had to do in 2011; they gave us seven recommendations. We’ve completed three of those and started work on two more. The biggest one has no plan right now, and that is the fire station on Hwy. 49 North. We have to be going ahead and just moving toward that.

However, Barker also wants to look to the new police station and the municipal court building.

“We understand that we had to scale that (Public Safety Complex) project back because it ballooned entirely too large for what our town had capacity to meet,” he said. “As we work toward a final agreement on a number on what we are willing to borrow to pay for that, we are going ahead and creating a mechanism to start collecting money for future debt service. This way this hopefully times out by taking on this 3-mill bite now. When the fire station is paid off in three to five years, you just move that mill to help cover more debt service to your police station. Hopefully, we’re not having this conversation three or four years from now. This buys us a good bit of time into the future.”

Raises for city employees has been a major concern in the City Council meetings and Barker said the problem became personal for him one morning.

“I was at the Shell station on Hardy Street one morning and I ran into a city employee,” he said. “I try to speak to all of them when I see them. He had been working for the city 37 years and was making about $12.50 an hour. That just got to me, because how can you plan for any sort of retirement and take care of yourself and your family on $12.50 an hour, and you’ve committed 37 years of your life working for a place?”

So Barker and Everett created tiers for pay increases based on seniority.

“If you can help create a reason for him to stay a little longer and give his institutional knowledge on to other folks, it’s a worthwhile investment,” Barker said.

Pay raises for employees in the Water & Sewer, Public Words and Parks & Recreation department will begin April 1, 2018, with increases from 25 cents per hour for workers with 2-4 years on the job to $1.50 per hour for city veterans with 25 years or more. The five code enforcement officers will receive an annual raise of $1,000.

“I went on a call with a code enforcement officer,” Barker said. “Just the issues that they face and as thin as that department is spread, they are underpaid. They, water billing and municipal court are dealing with people that are probably having a pretty bad day. I have time and again said our code enforcement officers handle those situations so professionally. It was kind of a must-have for us to make sure they got some sort of increase.”

Barker said money was not available for across-the-board increases.

“However, we were able to look at this and ask, ‘What’s our real goal in this?’” he said. “One of our goals is to retain good employees and to people to see working for the city not as a job, but a possible career if they are skilled, committed to the job and committed to customer service. For Public Works, Parks & Rec and Water & Sewer – three departments whose crew members are often working two and three jobs to pay their bills – the longer you’ve been here, the more you get. It’s not probably everything they want; it’s not everything we want. It’s a start, so anybody who has been there two years or longer will see some type of increase starting April 1.”

Barker said he heard the complaint about city employees’ wages during his campaign for mayor.

“The city has done an O.K. job of increasing starting salaries at positions,” he said. “The problem is compression happens, so you have someone who has been working here 10-15 years and they are barely making more than someone who just started. You have to recognize the commitment that these people make.”

The process of analyzing paychecks for police and fire personnel is beginning, Barker said.

“Public safety is the thing that helps recruit and retain residents and protect quality of life,” he said. “That so very much guides the perception of your city.”

However, Barker said the 3-mill tax levy – which amounts to an increase of $32.50 for a $100,000 home – is certain to bring some bad feelings.

“We are asking the people who will benefit from the protection provided by these facilities to help pay for those,” he said. “No one likes paying, but we also have to understand this city hasn’t seen a real millage increase for the better part of two decades. It makes a great talking point if you’re not increasing taxes, but if you’re not planning or preparing for your public safety departments, you are probably going to limit future growth.”

Barker said the FY2018 budget did not plan for a major bump in sales tax reimbursements.

“Hopefully, sales tax revenues will come in higher than we expect because we are only budgeting for 1 percent growth,” he said. “If they do come in above and beyond, then you have some one-time money that you can use for some one-time expenses. That means you can do some capital projects. So we are really trying to focus on what was most important in this budget, which was paving, water and sewer.”

Among other budget items that Barker has included are hiring a customer service trainer who follows up with employees, and more money for the summer jobs program.