Gulfport budget deficit: "It can't be business as usual"

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The debate Tuesday night focused on Christmas decorations for Jones Park.  The department of leisure services director wants to purchase new lights to decorate the revamped park.

"We're getting ready to go into one of the biggest most important holiday seasons of the year," Edmund Salloum told the council.  "It'd be sad to go into it without the decorations we'd need to highlight the area."

Mayor George Schloegel understands the need to make Jones Park festive.  But, he also understands city finances.  That's why he gave the council this advice.  "If you want something this Christmas we pretty much better act now. Do whatever amount you're comfortable with, if you're comfortable with any at all, just give us some direction," the mayor said.  "If we're going to keep it dark for the Christmas season, that's okay too, but that's a decision we have to make now. We can't wait until the last minute."

The $100,000 Christmas lights request got tabled, because the council is watching how it spends city money.

"It's time for our city to get Gulfport back on the firm financial footing it has had in past decades," council vice president Rusty Walker wrote in a letter he emailed after the Tuesday meeting.  "It can't be business as usual."

Like other governments around South Mississippi, Gulfport is dealing with revenue shortfalls.  The city's financial director told council members what may be a one million dollar budget deficit at the end of this fiscal year could balloon to four million dollars at the end of 2013, unless spending practices are curtailed.

That's something Walker said this council is getting good at.  "Actions of our current council and mayor to create efficiencies have made our city operations tighter and more efficient than they have been in years," Walker wrote.  "But it isn't enough.  We still have to do better."

Because property tax collections are predicted to be down next year, and rental income, franchise fees and court fines are lower than projected, Gulfport just doesn't have enough money to pay for everything it wants and needs.  To Councilman Walker, that means his colleagues must look for new ways to make sure next year's budget is even leaner.

"Gulfport must dump the mentality that we cannot look at every department for serious and fundamental changes to the way those departments operate," he wrote.

In the case of the department of leisure services, that change may be in how Jones Park gets decorated for the holidays.  The council's suggestion at Tuesday's meeting was to consider a single Christmas tree instead of an elaborate series of lights.  To many council members, that makes a lot more financial sense, especially at a time when spending must be curtailed.

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