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The Budget is Late, But People Now Getting Paid After the Delay in Natchez

By John Mott Coffey, with News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ

NATCHEZ, Miss.–A divided Natchez Board of Aldermen on Tuesday adopted the city’s annual budget, a spending plan that’s two weeks late and has city officials uncertain whether it can be sustained. They face a cash-flow problem and also federal-state grants possibly being cut off as the city continues to be tardy in getting its financial accounts audited.

“I don’t feel confident in the budget at all,” said Alderman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who voted against the measure for city government expenses to be paid through September 2015.

The board’s 4-2 vote to approve the $33.6 million budget allows City Hall to pay municipal employees and bills it hasn’t been authorized to do since the fiscal year started Oct. 1. However, the city faces a cash-flow crunch that prompted City Clerk Donnie Holloway to ask aldermen to approve getting a $800,000 loan.

The board didn’t consent to Holloway’s request with little explanation about it.

“What is it for? He didn’t give a reason why he needed it” Alderman Ricky Gray said after the meeting. “You have to have documentation why you need it.”

“It’s called cash flow,” Mayor Butch Brown told Gray earlier in the meeting in explaining the need to get a short-term loan to meet city payroll and other expenses until city property taxes are due to be paid in early 2015.

The budget adopted Tuesday projects the city for the fiscal year ending next September getting about $36.2 million in total revenues,  which Brown noted would leave a surplus of about $2.6 million. Within that budget is the general fund, which pays the day-to-day costs of running the city with revenues of about $13.1 million and expenditures of $12.8 million.

Alderman Dan Dillard, who joined Arceneaux-Mathis in voting against the budget, pointed to various “contradictions” in budget documents prepared by the city clerk’s office that he said are “false and misleading.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Holloway asked Dillard.

“I’m not calling him a liar. I’m just saying the documents are lying,” the alderman said after Tuesday’s four-hour meeting.

Brown, who oversaw the crafting of the budget with Holloway, has acknowledged the city’s bookkeeping is prone to mistakes and said Tuesday the budget  remains a work in progress. “Once we adopt this budget, we will be looking at it again in late December and early January for any revisions that need to take place at that time,” the mayor said.

The city’s fiscal year that ended in September 2013 has not been audited because its financial accounts have not yet been straightened out enough for auditors to review. This means state or federal funds for the city could be shut off, Community Development Director James Johnston told the board.

“They can freeze funds,” said Johnston, who noted state agencies demand to know why past budgets have not been audited to ensure funds have been properly spent.

While Gray voted to approve the budget, he expressed concerns about the city administrators’ heavy reliance on special funds Natchez gets from leasing city-owned land by the river to Magnolia Bluffs Casino.

“The only good money we have is from the casino, and they keep tapping into that. If we don’t look out, we’re going to be drying it up,” Gray said.

With city administrators failing to meet the September deadline to have a budget ready for the Board of Aldermen’s approval by Oct. 1 – as set out in state law – the city has not been authorized to pay bills for two weeks. However, the twice-a-month paychecks for city employees due today should be distributed with the board’s adoption of the budget Tuesday.

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