MARY ANN ANDERSON
After nearly two hours, several intermissions and often confusing dialogue, the Hazlehurst City Council passed its 2021-22 budget in a called meeting last Wednesday morning.
According to a draft copy of the total budget handed out prior to the meeting, the $5,739,579 in expenses outweighed the $5,433,888 in revenue by $305,691. But during the meeting, the deficit figure was updated by Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay as $336,540, which he said he arrived at by adding and subtracting overages and deficits in each department.
The meeting was called to try to reduce the deficit and balance the budget.
To complicate matters even further, Hazlehurst Municipal Golf Course, which is owned by the City, claimed a shortfall of $115,300, an amount not included in the total deficit of $336,540.
Mayor Bayne Stone said that while he would like to save the golf course, the City couldn’t carry the financial burden alone and asked for an emergency called meeting with the Jeff Davis County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education to discuss their interests in keeping it open versus shutting it down entirely. Because of the Memorial Day holiday, that meeting has yet to be scheduled.
In good news, though, the Water and Sewer Department’s budget balanced completely.
As for the general fund, Stone said that the council would have to take the deficit figures and “make them work.”
One of the first things the mayor suggested, albeit jokingly, was to raise the millage rate from 8 to 13-1/2. One milL, he said, equals to $80,000 to $84,000.
With the joking aside, that’s when the council began its negotiations.
As for the general fund, Ward 4’s John Bloodworth suggested letting the department heads hash out the numbers during what he termed an intermission.
But Stone instead wanted to dismiss the meeting rather than have an intermission, asking for yet another called meeting on Thursday or Friday.
Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson interjected and nixed the idea of department heads slashing the budget and stated that it would be better for the council to do it. He also added begrudgingly that the council may indeed have to raise the millage rate.
That’s when Stone made the first motion of the day to have another called meeting at 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon to give everyone enough time to work on trimming the budget. The motion passed unanimously.
But Bloodworth again suggested taking a half-hour break to talk to the department heads and then reconvene. He said if the council couldn’t resolve the budget that same day, then they could meet again on Thursday, as was approved by Stone’s motion.
After coming back into session from the first intermission, Bloodworth, who is the liaison between the council and the Hazlehurst Police Department, immediately knocked $200,000 off the $336,540 deficit by slicing out the purchase of four much-needed new police cars. He asked that the reduction come only with the understanding that the vehicles could be purchased with a portion of the $1.3 million the City will be receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act. He then told the council he wanted to order the cars now, as the dealer agreed to not invoice the City until July, after the new fiscal year begins and when the City has received the funds from the COVID relief act
When Bloodworth asked Stone if he was okay to order the cars, the mayor said that he wasn’t, that it’s not “good business” to buy on credit, that the money from Rescue Act was “not in the bank yet.”
While it took more lengthy, and sometimes contentious, negotiations on the cars, Bloodworth finally conceded the $200,000, which Stone then said brought the total toward reducing the deficit to $284,000, an amount that he said included a 1-milL raise on taxes estimated at $84,000. That’s when Bloodworth called for yet another intermission to talk to department heads.
When the council reconvened once again, Cody White, manager of Hazlehurst Municipal Airport, agreed to cut $20,000 from his budget, with Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis Fire-Rescue Chief Charles Wasdin giving back $1,000. That brought the deficit down to $32,340, which Stone said he could make up in “miscellaneous income.”
After the millage rate had been discussed throughout the meeting, Johnson then made the official motion to raise it from 8 to 9, adding that the rate hadn’t increased in years. But he received no second, although Stone had been including the $84,000 in the reduction throughout the meeting.
“I thought everybody had agreed on that,” a visibly disappointed Stone pointed out. “That’s where we got the $84,000.”
The other elephant in the room, the $115,300 deficit in the golf course, yet again reared its head, with Bloodworth suggesting a golf course board that could help “bring those monies back in there.” That concept had worked several years ago with corporate sponsorships and membership drives, but following a clash between then-course manager Tony Parise and the golf course board, the board members resigned en masse. That was in June, 2019, and no fund-raising efforts to support the course have been conducted since the board members left.
Johnson said that if the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education were to help with the golf course, it would “pull the load” on its financial burden, with Ramay adding, “There’s no easy solution, but we’ve got to come up with a solution.”
That’s when Bloodworth asked for yet another break in the meeting, saying, “Let me go back to the drawing board one more time.”
When the council went back into session, Bloodworth said that he had discovered a “clerical error” of $101,584 in the Police Department’s budget. That overage figure was inadvertently carried over from the 2020-21 budget for employee medical insurance.
Stone then laughed that while the City may have “lost” $84,000 in not passing the millage rate, it “found” $101,584 from a clerical error.
With the $101,584 error, the $200,000 from the Police Department vehicles, $20,000 from the airport, and $1,000 from the Fire Department, the total backed out of the budget was $322,584. That amount, subtracted from the total deficit of $336,540, still left a shortfall of $13,756.
Stone then asked for a motion to take those adjustments, which didn’t include the golf course’s loss of $115,300, and to approve the general budget.
In the discussion phase, Bloodworth was concerned the City is “going backward” if the golf course closes because of budget issues, but Stone said he thought with enough community support, and specifically from the county commissioners and Board of Education, that it would be “okay.”
Johnson then made the formal motion to approve the budget, with Bloodworth seconding, a move that passed unanimously. Although the earlier motion for a Thursday meeting had passed, it was no longer needed.
“We’ve done a good job,” Johnson concluded at adjournment. “Hazlehurst is better served because we want Hazlehurst to grow.”