September 18, 2019 10:51:11 AM
STARKVILLE -- It was clear to Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk five minutes before Tuesday's scheduled board meeting time that only three aldermen were present and there would not be a quorum.
As a result, the meeting started three-and-a-half hours later with five aldermen present. The board limited the agenda to save time and ultimately passed the Fiscal Year 2020 budget with a millage increase of 1.5 -- from 26.63 mills to 28.13 mills.
The millage increase passed with a 3-2 vote after the amount and status were up in the air for two weeks, and the budget later passed unanimously.
The 2020 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
"If we hadn't passed a budget, then come Oct. 1, we're out of business. We can't pay our people, we can't pay our bills," Mayor Lynn Spruill said after the meeting. "Hopefully next year we'll have it done by (the state deadline) Sept. 15."
Sistrunk, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty were present at the scheduled meeting time and voted for the millage increase. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 3 Alderman David Little, who showed up later, voted against it. Henry Vaughn of Ward 7 and Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins of Ward 6 were absent for both sessions.
Mills are used to calculate property taxes, and the city determines each year how many property tax mills to levy. The increase of 1.5 mills, the amount originally proposed, is projected to generate about $400,000 in new revenue, and that revenue will cover some new hires and equipment and pay raises for some city employees. It will raise the average tax bill by about 1 percent.
The board chose not to vote on the budget at its Sept. 3 meeting as a result of disagreement over how much to increase millage, if at all, and a work session on Sept. 5 did not bring the board any closer to a consensus. Spruill decided to leave the millage amount blank on Tuesday's meeting agenda.
Perkins has regularly opposed tax increases and did not attend the work session. Carver, Little and Vaughn all said they saw the need to increase some city employees' salaries but were hesitant to support a tax increase.
All four were absent at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday when the board meeting was supposed to start.
Little's flight into the Golden Triangle Regional Airport was delayed during his return from a trip abroad, and Carver notified the board that he would not attend the meeting upon hearing that Little could not be there on time, Spruill told the audience.
"This was (meant to be) a very substantive meeting, and I believe we've had what can only be called an opportunity for our board members not to have a quorum so that we cannot conduct business," Spruill said.
When the board still lacked a quorum at 6:10, Spruill called a recess until 9 p.m. The board only needed one more member to reach quorum, and Little's flight landed around 8:30.
Spruill, Beatty and Sistrunk all said they had never seen the board of aldermen fail to reach quorum before, and Spruill called it "shameful."
"It's disappointing that politics -- and let's make no mistake, this is politics, gamesmanship if you will -- keeps the city from doing the business that we need to be doing," Sistrunk, the board's budget chairperson, told The Dispatch shortly before the recess.
Carver told The Dispatch after the meeting that he did not want the board to vote with only four members present, and he was disappointed that two board members still did not show up after the recess.
"This thing was sitting on a political fulcrum," he said. "It would be a very close vote either way, so without (Little) here, I thought that was doing an injustice to the city. Every vote counts on the budget. Anything you can do to make sure a full board shows up is always a good attempt to be representative."
Carver, Little, Vaughn and Perkins were all members of the previous board, which voted in July 2015 to increase salaries for both the current board and the city's lowest-paid employees at the time. Vaughn proposed both raises in one motion, and he and Perkins were two of the four approving votes.
Carver and Little voted against the 2015 motion, as did Walker. They did not oppose the wage increase for city employees, but they wanted to vote on the issue separately from aldermen raises.
The Dispatch could not reach Perkins or Vaughn by press time.
Impact of the tax hike
Some of the revenue from the 2020 tax increase will fund raises for utility linemen, police, firefighters and other city employees that are paid below the salary rate in a similar or equivalent market, according to a study of the city's pay plan conducted by Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute of Government.
Additionally, the new property tax revenue will buy a new fingerprinting machine and new cameras for the police department, ransomware protection software for the technology department and a new hot mix asphalt truck. The city will also hire two new firefighters, bringing the fire station on Garrard Road up to full staff capacity, and a new code enforcement employee.
"I think it's pretty obvious that we all have budget fatigue and tax millage fatigue at this point," Sistrunk said. "Tonight's vote is really quite simple as far as I'm concerned, and it comes down to this: Do we think we're doing everything we can for the public health, safety and welfare of our residents, and are we providing all the equipment and resources that we need to for our employees?"
Walker also voiced his support for the tax increase during the short meeting.
"If we're really serious about paying our people, I think the best policy decision would be to make sure that when we walk out of here tonight, the money moving forward is going to be there ready to go, ready to take care of our people," Walker said. "That is why I will be supporting this tonight."
Carver said the only initiative he approved of was raising employee wages. He previously said at the budget work session that he also supported the two new fire department hires, but he said Tuesday that the insurance discount from fully staffing the fire station would be "the least significant savings" related to fire.
He told The Dispatch he believes the board could have found the $105,000 allocated for employee wage increases somewhere in the budget without implementing a tax increase.
Much of the audience had left by the time the board meeting began. The planned public hearings had been scratched from the agenda, and the board moved several items to the consent agenda, including the considerations of several renovations to city parks and a proposed contract for the construction of Cornerstone Park.
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