Jackson’s mayor is backtracking on a plan to plug a $3.2 million hole in the city’s 2007-08 budget by adding to residents’ utility bills.
The increases, proposed at the close of stormy budget debates in September, were to have kicked in Oct. 1 and would have added about $90 yearly to water and sewer bills.
But Mayor Frank Melton said he’s abandoning the fee increases and will look for other ways to shore up city finances.
“We’re not going to do that (raise rates),” Melton said late last week.
He said he will exhaust all options before having to pass on rate increases. He’s to meet this week with his administration and City Attorney Sarah O’Reilly-Evans to resolve the matter.
The likelihood of that, however, is remote, some City Council members and residents say. The budget is again unbalanced, and no one seems to know where the money to fix it is coming from.
“The mayor is playing politics,” said council President Leslie Burl McLemore.
A water rate increase of 9.5 percent, along with a 4.97 percent sewage increase, was approved in hearings last month to raise $2.9 million toward operation of the system and repayment of bond debt. A 60-cent-per-month sanitation fee increase was to generate $329,400. Melton was to have given council members an ordinance proposal as part of the city’s $387.7 million budget. With the council’s OK, fee hikes would take effect.
“Legally, the budget has not really been balanced,” McLemore said. “And I have no idea where you can get $3 million. But you would start (cutting) the police department, fire and public works. You look at the departments with the big budgets.
“On this issue, we have to bite the bullet and do what we need to do,” McLemore said.
City Council Budget Committee Chairman Marshand Crisler agreed, saying the city will lose more than $250,000 a month if rates aren’t raised.
He cited mismanagement by Melton.
“Now, we’re going to be in financial arrears because that rate increase was a significant amount of revenue,” Crisler said. “Once again, no sound fiscal management. I’m still wondering why … we still haven’t gotten that ordinance when it should have taken effect Oct. 1.
Jackson resident Gloria Washington, a 26-year state worker, said residents, particularly the older ones, are having trouble paying their bills. Increases will make it even more difficult, she said.
Jackson is “ripping off” people, she said in pleading with officials to hold spending.
“(Fee increases are) highway robbery,” she said. “It’s city robbery. You are ripping people off sideways here. Why? So we can pay for (Melton’s bodyguards)? I don’t appreciate that.”
Melton sparked controversy when he reassigned several Jackson Police Department officers, including a current and former bodyguard. He unsuccessfully sought City Council permission to transfer $57,000 to fund the raises.
Several police officers have protested, claiming the promotions system was bypassed. The officers will have the new titles without the raises.
Regarding the fee increases, Public Works Director Thelman Boyd says they are needed.
“We’re waiting on the mayor to look at the rate that we’re proposing,” Boyd said. “I think what the mayor said is he would look at it and talk with the administration. And that’s about as far as I can comment.”
Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman said he thought the increase should be implemented, but he was willing to listen to Melton’s thoughts. Tillman said he wanted to find a way to lessen the burden for senior citizens.
“That would be one burden that wouldn’t be on the older people,” Tillman said. “That was our concern that it would affect a lot of people who were elderly.”
Crisler said as Jackson’s population decreases, the cost of operating the system is spread out to other users.