Supervisors already are considering budget shortfalls and mulling taxes

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Facing a lower total assessed value in the county this year — which will produce less tax income for Poplarville and Picayune, the three county school districts and the county itself —  supervisors and board president Anthony Hales floated a budget proposal on Monday.

With the two percent decline in the assessed value of the county, applying the same amount of millage as was applied last year, won’t produce the same amount of revenue. Actually, if nothing’s changed, less money will flow into county coffers.

That means if supervisors want to remain even on revenue, millage rates have to be increased by the board.

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All government entities in the county have a choice, if things remain the same and don’t get better: Either cut services, and maybe even personnel, or raise taxes. It is not a palatable choice.

Hales told fellow supervisors that there is no reason for county departments and the various county-supported entities that will fill out and submit budget requests this month to supervisors to submit unrealistic figures.

“It just doesn’t make any sense for a department to send something up here that we know we are not going to be able to do,” said Hales.

So Hales made the following proposal: He suggested that departments automatically cut five percent from their budgets, and that the Sheriff’s Department cut three percent. Then, he said, supervisors should contemplate raising millage rates by 1.5 to 2 mills, nothing higher. “That is a starting point,” Hales proposed.

“Rather than have us do it (trimming budgets), those department heads should figure out ways (to cut). They know their departments better than anyone else,” he said.

Hales’ comments set off a round-robin discussion on taxes and budgeting.

Supervisors last week directed that budget request forms be sent out to department heads. Supervisors will be entering budget discussions and negotiations in August and September.

The budget usually has to be hammered out by mid-September for adoption just prior to Oct. 1, the beginning of the county fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.

Last year while hammering out the budget, county officials said it was the toughest budget they had ever faced, and scenarios for the upcoming fiscal year look even bleaker. County assessed value is down by two percent, according to a report from county tax assessor-collector Gary Beech, who briefed supervisors last week.

The assessed valuation of automobiles hit a record 12 percent reduction, and all categories were down.

“At least we need something (budget requests) to be sent up here that we can work with,” said Hales.

Three supervisors last year said they would not vote for increasing taxes, and they held to their promise. The three were Sandy Kane Smith, Patrick Lee and Hudson Holliday. That meant that with three votes, they held the decision on taxes. It takes three votes to do anything on a five-member board.

Late Supervisor Charles Culpepper was sick last year at budget time and was not able to enter into debate on the matter. Hales was at first noncommittal, saying he recognized the need for a slight increase, but Holliday, Smith and Lee held the majority and taxes were not increased.

 Smith and Supervisor Joyce Culpepper, who took her husband’s place by appointment when he passed away, did not say where they stood on the issue. Lee was absent on Monday. His father was sick. Holliday said it will have to be near dire “straits” before he votes for a tax increase. Holliday has announced he plans to run for governor in the next election for state officials

This year will be tougher than last for supervisors to hold the line as the recession and a bad economy clamps down on Pearl River County just as it has the rest of the nation.

The county’s three school districts just came through hammering out their budgets, and there were layoffs, and cuts, although not as many as were first expected.

The debate in the school boards has already produced negative votes. On the Pearl River County school board, member Sherwin Taylor voted no on the budget and the tax request to the county. He said maintained the budget was not balanced and said he was against raising taxes. The PRC school board requested a slight increase in taxes from the county.

On Monday, in what is a rare event on the Poplarville school board, board members Samuel Gentry and Lisa Graves voted no on hiring two more employees, expressing concern about future budget problems.

Said Holliday, “Here’s the problem. Some are going to cut to the bare minimum. . . You have others who will pad their budget against expected cuts. If we are not careful, we will cut the guy who cut to the bone and just cut the padding out of the other guy.”

Added Holliday, “We are in tough times, and there is an attitude out there, and everybody knows it, that government ought not to be cut. I found out in the military that people will follow you to hell and back, if they know you are in it with them. And government has to be in it with the people.” Holliday retired from the Mississippi National Guard as a general.

“We need to ask, ‘What can we do without?’ ” he said.

Said Hales, “I want to do what needs to be done. Fifteen hundred voters can come here raising hell, but I am going to do what I think is right. . .We can’t put something together when we know it’s not going to work. . .”

Added Hales, “The department heads say they got it as low as they can get it, and we have got the millage rate as high as we can get it, and it still ain’t matching up. Something is going to break. It don’t take but just one unknown variable to get out of whack and mess up everything.”

Said Hales, “I know there will be some sending a budget request and asking for more money, and there is just no way that will pass.”

Said Smith, “You are right. We have to start planning right now what we are going to do.”

Said Holliday, “Chimney Square is coming on line and everybody is going to asking for more people to man that facility.”

Said Hales, “Then we will just have to sell it.”

Asked Holliday, “Is that in the form of a motion?”

“It’s easy to adjust up; hard to adjust down. I know it is in my family,” added Holliday.

“I just want to tell you up front: There will have to be some desperate straits before I vote to raise taxes. I think that just compounds the problem. A lot of people out there right now can’t pay their light bill,” said Holliday. “We have all got to be in this business together.”

Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson, who as chancery clerk acts as clerk for the board, said that the media needs to do a survey of voters to see if they would be amenable to a slight tax increase, “a very small one,” this year.

“We need to know what the people think on this,” he added.