Millage increase discussed at council

Published 1:57 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Consideration of a millage increase was the basis for a public hearing Monday night, and that increase was approved.

After all the discussion the city approved the increase. The increase amounts to an increase in all city taxes of 4.77 mills, and a decrease in school taxes by -3.33 mills. The total increase is 1.66 mills to city residents.

The meeting was heavily attended by the public, who had many concerns and questions they wanted addressed.

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Most concerns sprouted from the increase in taxes assessed. City resident Ray Scott expressed concern about the increase, citing a 21 percent increase in real property and a 77 percent increase in ad valorem taxes. He said those increases could be a significant impact to residents and small business owners.

Such increases could also keep new businesses from moving into the city, Scott said.

Questions to council members and the mayor, especially about the loss in the utility fund reported earlier this year, many times were referred to the city accountant and the soon to be city clerk Priscilla Daniels. Daniels has only been employed with the city for a few months, yet the council still referred most questions concerning the city’s financial state to her.

One question repeatedly dodged by the council concerned why the council repeatedly did nothing to fix the broken utility budget, even after there were repeated audits that stated there was a problem and gave ideas of how to fix them. Resident Wayne Gouget said previous audits reflected the city has been losing money in that department since 2002.

“Here we are in 2008 still playing with the same thing,” Gouget said.

City resident Larry Breland had to ask numerous times why nothing was done to remedy the problem after city officials and Daniels would not give a satisfactory answer. Daniels said she could not answer since said she has only been employed with the city for the last few months.

John Pigott later expressed his dissatisfaction about the council’s inability to act on the audit’s previous opinions and necessary actions to remedy the problems. Again city officials asked city accountant Amber Hinton and newly hired Daniels to help them with an answer, who were both siting in the front row.

“Y’all keep looking at the people down front but y’all need to know these things, that comes with the pay,” Pigott said later in the meeting.

City council member Jerry Bounds attempted to answer the question. He said the city had not raised millage or utility rates since the early 1990’s and that caused the city to run the utility department at a deficit. Bounds said he has also wondered why the millage was not increased when bonds were taken out. He said the council voted to raise millage but it never went through. Mayor Greg Mitchell said the city made a humanitarian decision not to raise taxes after Hurricane Katrina, further burdening the residents.

High turnover in the city manager and city clerks positions were used by city officials as a reason why the city did not raise millage or utility rates when necessary. Pigott asked how many of each of those positions the city had been filled in the current administration.

“More than I got fingers on my right hand,” Bounds said.

Some residents offered suggestions to avoid the tax increase. Local business owner Angel Cosme said the city could convert city vehicles, including school buses, to run on natural gas. That change could save the city about half on fuel expenses.

Cosme also suggested finding ways to keep young people in the city, who will ensure the continued survival of the community.

“If all the young people in this city move out this town will die,” Cosme said.

Council member Donald Parker agreed the city needs to look into ways to keep young people in the city. He said the problem has been long standing, citing the limited services and opportunities Picayune offers to young people.

Bringing in new businesses could be a way to increase sales tax, a major part of the city’s funds. Parker said a number of restaurants were interested in building in Picayune, until they found out Pearl River County does not sell liquor. Local business owner Michael Christovich said he has also attempted to get a car manufacturer to locate in the county, but the lack of “civilization”, such as Outback restaurants and Target and Lowe’s stores, cause them to lose interest.