Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Jackson is never shy of emergencies. This year alone, schools remained closed for seven days after freezing weather shattered pipes and forced businesses, schools and residents to either close or stock up on bottled water. When some students did go back to school, they couldn't even flush toilets, so the school provided hand sanitizer and port-a-potties instead. Just a matter of weeks ago, a high school senior drove over an uncovered manhole, flipped her mother's convertible and died instead of going to graduation practice.
Despite these catastrophes, the Jackson City Council has been using its fund balance or "rainy-day" fund for city-clerk salaries and festivals—items that are fundamentally non-essential.
There are bound to be growing pains as a largely experienced council, save two rookie members, continue to do business as usual as a new radical mayor and his administration work to shift gears. However, no matter how long you have been in the City of Jackson, there should be little confusion over what constitutes an emergency.
On the one hand, the mayor and Director of Finance and Administration Charles Hatcher do not believe in spending the fund balance so frivolously. The city council, though, has gotten into the habit of allowing groups to petition them for money that often comes out of the emergency fund rather than through a process. Just last week, the council authorized $15,000 to the Farish Street Festival without determining which fund the money would come out of first. The justification? Council always ends up funding this event even though it never seems to end up in the budget.
Last year, Priester said he found the money for it in the city clerk's budget. Are events like the Farish Street Festival vital to the Jackson community? Absolutely. But funding for events can be locally sourced or actually budgeted for by the city council, not pulled from emergency funds. The applicants must follow a well-communicated process for applying for funds to be eligible for them.
As we enter budget hearing season, the City is up against serious and mounting debts to bondholders, some of which may be repaid through the emergency fund so that the City does not have to raise taxes. It is irresponsible at best, and a death sentence for the City's finances at its worst, to continue to dip haphazardly into the fund balance.