Bay sets hearing on millage increase
By Geoff Belcher
Aug 23, 2014, 01:15
The Bay St. Louis City Council on Friday took steps to correct the city's cash-flow problem, including setting a public hearing on a millage increase and agreeing to advertise for bids on the Hancock Chamber office.
The council met in a recess session Friday, its third meeting of the week, including a budget session Monday and regular business meeting on Tuesday. After more than an hour of debate Friday, council members decided to advertise a public hearing on Sept. 4 for a five mil increase of the city's ad valorem tax rate.
It wasn't an easy decision.
Currently, the city charges 15.09 mills for city services and 2.66 mills for the county library system. The council has met in a series of budget workshops in preparation for adopting its 2015 fiscal year budget in September.
The city has been dealing with cash flow and debt service problems and an independent auditing firm last month strongly recommend the city either generate new revenues or cut services.
In the public comment portion of Friday's meeting, financial advisor Corky Hadden offered a cost-cutting plan to the council which included a 2.7 mil ad valorem tax hike; increasing the city's utility rates enough to make the system "self-supporting"; and creating a plan to sell city properties that are no longer needed, such as the poll yard at Turner, Eighth and Victoria; and the former city hall annex building on Court Street which the city currently leases to the Hancock Chamber for $1 per year.
Ron Thorpe, a member of the Hancock County Citizens for Good Government, took the council to task for even considering a millage increase.
"My disappointment is that you went right for the low road, which is raising millage as high as you could," Thorpe said. He added that if the city couldn't cut employees, it should at least institute a hiring freeze for the next year and cut the salaries of the mayor and council by 10 percent.
Dave Wells, a Ward 6 resident, complained that he and his neighbors "are still called 'the annexed area.' Our taxes go to Bay St. Louis, but we still don't get the services we need. ... We don't think it's fair."
Mayor Les Fillingame and his administration have been urging the council to consider a millage increase while some of the council members – most notably Ward 5 Councilman Joey Boudin and Councilman-at-Large Michael Favre – have argued that the city should first do everything it could to cut costs.
Favre has publicly advocated 10 percent employee pay cuts, reducing personnel in the city's building department and closing city hall for half a day each Wednesday in order to reduce expenditures.
Fillingame fired back on Friday: "You have all of our employees in a panic. ... Our employees feel like this is a witch hunt going on.
Favre said he wasn't trying to panic or threaten anyone, he was simply looking to cut costs. He said he actually advocated raises for personnel in the police and fire departments.
"All I've heard from this whole council is, we need to make cuts,'" Favre said. "We cut $5,000 from the library and that's the only thing we cut."
"If this city is short of money," Ward 2 Councilwoman Wendy McDonald said, "I think it's inappropriate to go to the 93 city employees ... and make them bear the weight of that. ... I would not support cutting their salaries or closing offices for half a day."
Fillingame said that despite some of the councilmen's opinions, his administration has actually cut personnel costs.
"Back in 2008, the average payroll per pay period was $160,000," he said. Before July 2009, it was $176,000, he said, and the city still had a $700,000-per-year contract with a private grass-cutting company.
"The amount per period now, total pay, is $151,258," he said. ... "Our personnel costs are getting to the point where they're at pre-Katrina prices."
The council debated various millage increases Friday before settling on the five mil figure. The public hearing will be open to everyone, with every citizen allowed to speak "for a reasonable amount of time," city attorney Donald Rafferty said.
In addition to the millage increase, the council agreed to advertise for bids on the poll yard and city hall annex where the Chamber is housed.
Ward 6 Councilman Lonnie Falgout said he had spoken to Tim Moseley shortly before the meeting, and that Moseley is not only closing the Alice Moseley Folk Art museum currently housed on the top floor of the Bay's historic Depot building, but that he might be willing to move everything back to his late mother's home on Blaize Ave. and turn that property over to the city.
Fillingame said that if everything goes according to plan, then the Hancock Chamber will move to the space where the museum is at the Depot and pay same $750 per month rent the museum pays.
The city would then be able to sell the Court Street property.
Council agreed that it would take no less than the building's appraised value of $370,000.
Ward 4 Councilman Bobby Compretta, a realtor by trade, said that in the current business climate, "we'll have no trouble selling that building."