Brad's Blog: Gulfport leaders face hard financial decisions

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - When news breaks at Gulfport City Hall, the city's media liaison e-mails out a document called City Line. It's a letter from the mayor explaining why something is being done.

On Tuesday, City Line focused on Mayor Schloegel's plan to shut down the Cowan Road fire station and the Railroad Street fire station and move them to the VA.  The mayor wrote that by combining two fire stations, jobs would be saved.

"We are hopeful the City Council will select this path over the one that ends with the loss of 21 department employees," Schloegel wrote.

That was the first time anybody in the administration confirmed all the rumors that had swirled around fire stations and across the city.  Gulfport was seriously considering a plan to slash its payroll.

Gulfport's financial picture isn't very pretty right now.  In the middle of 2005, Gulfport had $11 million in the bank, money that could be used in a dire emergency.  That emergency was Hurricane Katrina.  The money on hand was critical to keep the city running.

Fast forward to this year's budget talks.  Instead of having money in the bank, the city's comptroller says Gulfport is staring at a $4.6 million cash shortfall.  Councilwoman Ella Holmes Hines used the phrase "dire straits" to describe the financial predicament.

The mayor admitted he was getting just four hours of sleep a night, because he was so worried about how Gulfport was going to pay its bills.

"The challenge before us is to put an end to wasteful spending and to make every aspect of city government more efficient, while protecting Gulfport against future budget shortfalls and not placing the burden on its taxpaying citizens," he wrote.

Councilwoman Holmes Hines said she warned the previous administration for two-and-a-half years that its rebuilding projects were too excessive.

"I think that we did too many improve projects," she said after Tuesday's budget workshop.

So just how lean will Gulfport become?

"You know there's always a little bit of fat," the mayor said on Tuesday.  "We're trying to find out where that fat is and get rid of it."

Will getting rid of fat mean getting rid of Gulfport employees?

"I hope not," said the mayor.  "I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing in the reductions."

Schloegel said the fire department needed to act quickly if it was going to avoid a significant cut in its workforce.

"This alternative solution to layoffs will not be available forever," he admitted. "If we are to use federal funds to build the new firehouse at the VA, we must confront the urgency of this crisis and act swiftly to resolve it. If we do not have a construction plan in place before the end of August, we will lose the federal funding."

And that, he said, could create a lot more sleepless nights for himself and the city council in September, when they try to approve a budget for FY 2010.

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