City budget approved, some changes coming

Staff Writer

West Point's $7.6 million 2019 budget is approved, but not before Selectmen realize they will have to make some minor adjustments for emergency management.

The budget passed 3-2 following a public hearing Thursday night with Selectmen Ken Poole and Leta Turner voting no, claiming they didn't have enough input although they've had the budget since June 11 and budget meetings with department heads and the Finance Committee went on for weeks.

Before adopting the budget, Mayor Robbie Robinson said a new mechanic needed to be added to the Public Works budget. The addition, which Public Works Director Joey Wright brought up two weeks ago, would bring to three the number of mechanics in the department. To make up the difference, the city garage will start charging other departments $65 per hour to work on their vehicles, up from the $60 now being charged.

That rate is closer to the going rate of $70 in the private sector, Robinson noted.

In addition, new Emergency Management Director Torrey Williams questioned his department's budget, noting reductions left him unable to finish a command trailer and to get needed equipment for an emergency operations center.

Williams took over June 1 after the retirement of veteran EMA Director Kerrie Gentry-Blissard. But the Finance Committee met with Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne May 24 to go over his budget and Wilbourne stood in for Gentry-Blissard Finance Committee member Keith McBrayer told the rest of the board.

The Finance Committee was told the trailer was completed and the items no longer needed to be budgeted.

"It's not finished. It doesn't have any radios, there's no equipment in it. And the vehicles we have won't pull it," Williams told the board, noting he'd only received a copy of the budget a day earlier. "What really concerns me is getting the command trailer up to where it needs to be."

He said if the county did have an emergency, the operations center didn't have operating computers so it would be of little use. He also wanted to make sure the budget had enough money to repair warning sirens if they broke.

The board asked Williams to come back with cost estimates on what was needed and the budget would be adjusted.

McBrayer noted some of the issues raised by Williams fall under an ongoing discussion among city and county fist responders about replacing current radio systems with the statewide MSWIN -- Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission -- radio system. That decision likely will come this fall. Spending much money now would be a waste if the radios will be obsolete in a few months, McBrayer stated.

The discussion sparked a broader debate from Poole and Turner about delaying a decision on the budget and how the budget was put together. Both are in their first year on the board and this is their first budget.
"I thought we were going to go through this line by line," Poole said of the budget.

"We would be here for days going over every line and what it all means," responded Selectman Jasper Pittman, who was the other member of the Finance Committee with McBrayer.

"You had the budget more than two weeks ago. You could have asked at anytime," Robinson added, addressing Poole.

"Instead of amending the budget later on, shouldn't we work to get it all close to right and then adopt it," Poole asked a few minutes later.

"The only incorrect thing is the EMA and it's not much money. We can amend it when he comes back," Robinson said.

Poole then asked about "capital investments."

"I need road work in Ward 3. I don't see where anything is earmarked for road work. I also need some drainage work...overall I don't see any investment...I want to do more with roads than fix a couple of potholes," he said.

"That costs money," Robinson answered, noting Poole was talking about a bond issue, not routine maintenance.

"For major capital improvements, we have to issue bonds," the mayor continued, noting the city is spending more than $200,000 in mitigation grants on drainage projects in Pine Acres and Seitz Road.

After the budget passed, Poole asked the process be changed so every member of the board would also be the Finance Committee.

"You could have come to any can participate in the process, you can come in any time and ask questions," Robinson explained.

McBrayer noted it also would be cumbersome trying to get all five board members and department heads to be able to meet for the kind of lengthy discussions that go into budget preparation. He said it already was difficult juggling schedules with just two board members.

Poole's motion failed.

As part of the brief discussions about the rest of the budget, the mayor noted the spending plan includes three new police officers, a third investigator and two new police cars.

The fire budget includes two more firefighters as part of the department's efforts to get to a Class 4 fire rating which would "save our citizens money on their insurance," Robinson said.

The department and Water and Light also are working on a hydrant maintenance program that would check the pressure and operation of every hydrant in the city every year. At the same time, they are extending hydrant coverage out Highway 50 West to the Lone Oak Road area at a cost of about $60,000.

Overall, the budget forecasts $7,837,157 in revenues and $7,655,771 in expenses for the fiscal year that starts today. Both figures are down from the current year. No property tax increase is required.

The budget does not include raises for city employees, but city leaders will revisit that topic in September when the Selectmen have a better idea of property values and set the tax rate.

In addition to the police and fire radio communications issue that may have to be financed, the county also may ask the city to invest in improvements to West Church Hill Road to serve new and existing industries.
The city's debt service, tourism, electric and water and sewer budgets all also showed surpluses in their projected revenues and expenses.

A 1.3 percent rate increase by the Tennessee Valley Authority also sparked some controversy. The higher rate takes effect Oct. 1 and the utility giant has recommended all its local providers pass the rate along to customers, although some, like Columbus Light and Water, are adding additional increases. The rate hike is the next-to-last in a six-year plan to try to get TVA's finances back "on solid ground" and interest costs under control.

If the city didn't pass along the increase, the impact would be even harder on Water and Light customers next year, said Pittman, referring to a TVA conference call in which he and some others took part.

Pittman has been a critic of TVA, claiming it "bullies" local electric providers. When he unseated an incumbent and won a return to the board last year, one of his platforms was fighting high electric bills, although the city actually has little control over rates.

The vote to pass along the 1.3 percent increase, which amounts to less than $2 a month for most residential customers, split 2-2-1 with Pittman abstaining, Turner and Poole voting no, and McBrayer and William Binder voting 'yes.' The mayor broke the tie in favor.

If Binder or McBrayer had not been present to vote, the result of the "protest" votes by Turner, Poole and Pittman could have had a major impact on local electric ratepayers in the future.