Gulfport's financial health "in dire straits"

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The mayor says Gulfport's finances are out of whack.  Councilwoman Ella Holmes Hines says the city's budget is in dire straits.  And unless all department heads trim 10 percent from their budgets, they concede that jobs are about to be slashed.

Gulfport council members got an overview of their finances on Tuesday to prepare for what will likely be contentious budget negotiations.  The city's comptroller expects Gulfport's cash flow to be more than four million dollars in the hole next year.  And Mike Necaise says the only way to get cash back into city coffers is to cut operating expenses, or tell people they're fired.

"We've got to come up with $4.6 million in either additional revenue or cuts through departments," Necaise told the council.

A budget meeting was the first time Gulfport's council heard a report about the financial condition of the city.  They were told by the city's comptroller that in the last four years, revenues went up six percent.  But expenses jumped 22 percent.

"But we feel like we need to shave expenditures by 10 percent to get this budget back in line and let us have a little bit of money in the bank to operate on," said Necaise.

Sales tax revenues declined last year, something Gulfport economics didn't expect.  At the same time, city healthcare costs skyrocketed.  And salaries also jumped.  That combination, plus the cost of several Katrina recovery projects, has city leaders trying to clean up what's being called a financial mess.

When Mayor George Schloegel was asked if he was worried, he said, "Oh very, very worried.  I'm spending 20 hours a day worrying about it."

Ella Holmes Hines went a step further.

"I'm greatly concerned about the financials of the city of Gulfport to the point that it's really going to be more grave than what's presented here for us today," the ward three councilwoman said.

City leaders admit trimming the fat from Gulfport's budget is a lot like the beautification team's efforts to maintain Highway 49 medians.  When the grass gets too high, cutting it becomes necessary.  But it also becomes very difficult.

"Any city that's looking at relieving fire and police officers, we're in dire straits here," said Holmes Hines.

Cutting public safety jobs has been talked about by city administrators.  But it's considered a last resort alternative.  Schloegel was asked if there will be layoffs in the city of Gulfport based on the next budget that comes out.  He said, "I hope not."

Libby Milner Roland was a bit more optimistic.  "We've been working on it.  And we're going to continue to work through it.  And I'm sure that we're going to come out with a solution," she said.

Holmes Hines said the solution better protect the city's public safety personnel.  City jobs may be cut, she conceded.  But "never police and fire," she said.

No decisions have been made yet about whether any jobs in Gulfport will be eliminated.  The city council will receive budget proposals from each department head next week.

According to Gulfport's comptroller, the city has a shortfall in its general fund and in its water and sewer fund.  Consequently, water and sewer bills will be going up.  Just how much of an increase property owners must pay will be determined during next month's budget talks.

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