Brad's Blog: Mississippi mayors face a daunting task

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Leaders across Mississippi face a daunting task. They must come up with budgets for the 2009-10 fiscal year, knowing their revenues will likely be below expectations.  A lot of hard decisions must be made to ensure that each agency can operate.

How tough is it?  According to the Associated Press, the cash crunch has gotten so bad that the highway patrol limits the number of bullets troopers can use for target practice on their days off.

"If they need more, we'll give them more," said Department of Public Safety spokesman Jon Kalahar. But with such a weak economy, he noted ammunition costs are a small area where officials can cut down.

At the Mississippi Municipal League meeting in Biloxi this week, Pelahatchie Mayor Knox Ross preached tough love.

"You can either shut down and not do anything, or view that as a challenge and a time to do better," he said.

Ross is the MML's president.  His message to colleagues was do whatever was necessary to protect their base.

"People can live anywhere they want.  So you have to find a way to make your city a place people want to live.  And that's what we try to tell them, how to do that," Ross explained.

Pelahatchie is small town on I-20, just east of Mississippi's capital city.  Its sales tax collections in FY 2009 were $310,787.14.  That was just a thousand dollars less than its sales tax tally the year before.

Compare that to a city like Waveland.  Its sales tax revenues last year topped the $2.5 million mark.  However, that was $300,000 less than the year before.

On top of that, Waveland is still putting itself back together after the 2005 hurricane.  Instead of bemoaning its struggles, Alderwoman Lili Stahler found a silver lining.

"By the time we finish our buildings, maybe the economy will be rebounding and everything will be as back to normal as we were before the storm," she said.

Next door, Bay St. Louis had a $300,000 increase in its FY 2009 sales tax collections.  That's making it just a bit easier for new mayor Les Fillingame to budget for next year.

"I think it's been real upbeat.  I think everybody is real optimistic about going forward," he said at the conference.  "Even though a little belt tightening is appropriate in some places, I think that it's being well received."

Belt tightening meetings have been held in city hall conference rooms across the coast.  Department heads are being told to find ways to trim costs.  In the next few weeks, their leaner operating proposals will be scrutinized.  So will water and sewer costs.  Mayors have admitted that a spike in those bills seems inevitable.

Despite the financial uncertainty facing each city, the elected leaders remain upbeat.  Here's how five term Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway summarized his city's journey since he first moved into city hall.

"We talked of rebuilding our finances. We talked of restoring integrity to City Hall and to your city government in general," Holloway said. "We talked of the promise of the new casino industry. We've come a long way in the past 16 years, and yet today we're still talking about some of the same things -- rebuilding, restoring and great promise."

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