Mayor wants cuts instead of tax hike

A day after the city administrator revealed a proposed tax increase, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton on Tuesday asked City Council members to find money elsewhere in the 2006 budget.

All but one of the seven City Council members said they probably wouldn’t pass a budget with a tax increase.

City Administration Director Peyton Prospere on Monday had presented council members a proposed property tax increase to fund public safety projects, such as a new city holding facility, police raises and equipment purchases.

But Melton sent council members a note Tuesday asking them to look at cutting $1 million from the budget rather than raising taxes for the equivalent amount.

“Is the city government operating effectively and efficiently?” Melton asked. “The answer is ‘No.’ As you review the proposed budget…instead of an increase in taxes are there opportunities to cut $1 million from operating expenses?”

Asked why he allowed his administration to prepare the budget with the proposed tax increase, Melton said, “(The increase) might be the right thing to do, but until someone can convince me that every city employee is working an eight-hour day for their pay, I can’t ask for a tax increase.”

Prospere had no comment Tuesday night after learning about Melton’s position.

The budget, unveiled Monday, called for a 1-mill property tax increase, the first since the fiscal 2002 budget.

Residents also would have to pay $1.50 more per month for garbage pickup, or $18 annually. The increase would generate about $840,000, Prospere said.

A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. The increase would mean about $5 a year on a $50,000 house or $10 a year on a $100,000 house.

Hinds County Tax Assessor Mike Barnes said millage increases not only raise taxes on homes but also on car tags, business and commercial properties and utilities, such as electric, phone and gas.

A 1-mill increase would net just more than $1 million, with the majority of the money earmarked for renovation of a vacant city building to use as a holding facility, Prospere said.

The city’s current facility on Silas Brown Street is dilapidated and unsafe.

The council’s budget committee began its meetings Tuesday with city department heads asking questions on how the directors plan to spend their budgets. The council must adopt a budget by Sept. 15. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Several council members said they would rather see the administration tighten its belt than raise taxes.

“Our job is to cut the fat first. An increase is usually saved until the very end if we see we’re not going to make it,” Council President Marshand Crisler said.

“I’m for the leverage to get people incarcerated, but I’d like to see everything else possible done to save money before raising the millage rate,” Ward 4 Councilman Frank Bluntson said.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon said she wants input from her constituents and would like to discuss partnerships for the holding facility with Hinds County officials before voting on an increase.

Prospere said earlier Tuesday the administration had to ask for extra money for the holding facility project in the new budget.

“The mayor wanted movement now on the facility. We had to ask for the increase now to avoid having to wait for the next year’s budget or the following year’s,” he said.

The city already is violating a 1995 federal court agreement that forbids it from operating jails or holding facilities, Jackson prisoners’ rights lawyer Ron Welch said. Welch represents city pretrial detainees from a 1981 court case.

Prospere said the city will work with Welch to avoid a lawsuit.

Melton said he’s not dropping the idea of a new holding facility, but investing money in a broken system does not make good business sense.

“I’d rather give the money to the county to expand the jail in Raymond,” Melton said. “Until we get the system cleaned up, I can’t ask taxpayers to come up with any more money.”

Clarion Ledger
8/17/5