HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Hattiesburg City Council is adjusting the city's proposed budget ahead of a Tuesday vote to keep city leaders accountable as they spend taxpayer money, according to members.
"I have spent endless hours studying every everything in the general fund," said councilperson Mary Dryden. "It's very time consuming. It's very detailed."
Ward 1 Councilperson Kim Bradley said he and Dryden combed through the budget and discussed their amendments only a day before the vote because they didn't receive the proposed budget as early as usual.
"We just didn't have a lot of time to meet with the administration after their proposed budget was given to us, so what Mrs. Dryden and I did, we went through line by line and tried to find monies that were there for a particular reason – somebody wanted to do this in a department or equipment- we need to be part of the process to help evaluate that," said Bradley. "So we took a lot of those items out. We have an ending cash balance of $3.5 million, but from that, we're going to have to do paving. We're going to have to do projects within the different departments."
Bradley said increasing the ending cash balance was the most responsible way to handle the council voting on a budget that doesn't include individual budget requests from city departments.
"We were just so late getting started," he said. "The council was brought into the picture very late. We are responsible to the citizens for the money, and the only way that we could remain in control or to hold the administration accountable is to put that money in the ending balance. Then, on a monthly-by-monthly basis, we'll go through those requests and through those needs, and we'll try to stretch that money as far as we can and get as much done as we can."
Dryden said, "We're trying to do everything we can for the people of Hattiesburg with the resources that we have, and sometimes that can be very difficult. People do not want their taxes raised, and I think particularly in light of having to go up on the water and sewer rates, we certainly didn't want to add to financial strain for anyone in the city."
Hattiesburg Chief Financial Officer Sharon Waits originally presented a budget that included salary increases for the incoming mayor and city council members, but Bradley said those were not included in the budget he received and tweaked.
"I don't see that happening," Bradley said. "Honestly, I might've been the only one that was pushing it. I'm not coming back to work here next year. I know $15, 967 is not enough for what we do. I know you don't want to create something in the $24,000-$25,000 range where somebody tries to make this a be their job. That's not what it's meant to be. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what the dollar amount would have to be to make it worthwhile because it does take a lot of time. You do this because you want to serve. You don't do it because you want the $10 an hour."
The budget does include a salary increase for a small group of first responders. Bradley said Hattiesburg Firefighters, who are recent fire academy graduates, will see starting salary increased to $30,000.
"That's a big step," he said. "I know there's a lot more that needs to be done, but as far as salaries go, that was the only thing in the budget."
He also said there were a few new city jobs, which come with new salaries to be paid, included in the budget.
"There were a couple of positions that were added," Bradley said. "A planner. We had a planner before, and when Donovan (Scruggs) left, that position was squeezed. It's back in the budget, along with three folks in the municipal court - a couple of public defenders and, I believe, a prosecutor- to give the municipal court some help."
Councilperson Deborah Delgado raised an issue about hiring new employees at higher salaries than what some decades-long city workers are being paid, but Dryden said that's out of the council's control.
"One of the things that I think is a challenge is in our city, we have a very large portion of the budget going to salaries," Dryden said. "There were some comments made by a council member (Monday) about how she felt like there were people working for the city who weren't making a high enough salary, and there's a real misconception about that. The council does not set salaries. That's not up to us. We do not determine what anyone one makes except the people in the city council's office. So that needs to be directed elsewhere in the administration."
The council is set to vote on the amended budget at its meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m.