New Municipal League leader says cities facing funding challenges

Published 12:13 am Sunday, July 23, 2006

As Mayor Bill Rutledge prepares to assume the presidency of the Mississippi Municipal League soon, he and fellow city leaders from across the state are staring at some obstinate obstacles.

“The biggest challenge we face is finding funding,” said the 55-year-old Pontotoc native. “Everybody’s infrastructure seems to be at a critical point,” he said, adding that competition for state and federal grants is far stiffer than in the recent past, just as high energy prices pinch services from police patrols to park maintenance.

State and federal regulations are another challenge for city executives and governing boards. Rutledge, whose professional background before becoming mayor was in utilities, said Pontotoc just spent $6 million for a new wastewater treatment system.

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“My philosophy has always been that it’s easier to work with these (regulatory) organizations than to work against them,” he said. That doesn’t keep him from lamenting enforcement gaps that let some rural residents flaunt environmental regulations.

“You’d be surprised right now, in all counties, how many of these old dug wells are being utilized as septic tanks,” Rutledge said. “That sewer pipe is going right in that well, and it goes from there into the aquifer. We’re not playing under the same rules. If you’re going to have rules, you ought to have the same rules for everybody.”

Rutledge said another huge challenge is to foster cooperation among local governments.

“There’s no battleground between cities and counties, except where we’ve made one,” he said. “We serve the same people. We’ve got to come together at the table with what’s best for all our citizens.”

As one example of city-county cooperation, Rutledge pointed to Pontotoc’s “tourism tax,” which supports countywide efforts from economic development and Main Street programs for all municipalities to libraries, historic preservation and a sportsplex.

“What’s collected inside the city will be given right back into the county,” he said. “That’s a win-win. We’re not trying to compete with them.”

Helping South Mississippi cities recovery from Hurricane Katrina involves cities statewide, Rutledge said. Operating funds usually generated by utility sales or local taxes, for example, must be supplied from outside.

“We’re faced with a new frontier with what’s happened on the coast,” he said. “It could have been the same devastation in North Mississippi if a bunch of tornadoes had come through here, just like the hurricane did in South Mississippi.”

Rutledge has three major goals for his term as Mississippi Municipal League president. One involves the organization’s member-education program.

“We have an elected officials’ course where you take mayors and aldermen and take them through budgeting, land use, operations — even how important for the mayor and board to work together,” he said. “I want to enhance that training.”

Another goal is to increase technical assistance on issues such as taxation, economic development, infrastructure, auditing, ordinances and state laws and to increase peer-to-peer aid, from mentoring to equipment loans.

Rutledge’s third goal for the League is for cities to have more input about legislation, much of it dealing with budgets and spending, from the formative stages.

“We’ve got to demand that our elected officials at the Capitol work for us instead of us working for them,” he said. “I want us as a League to sit with our legislators and talk about how their proposals are going to affect us.”

The Mississippi Municipal League’s annual meeting begins Monday in Tunica.