Jackson mayor, city council disagree over who's responsible for - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

Jackson mayor, city council disagree over who's responsible for dip in city's reserve funds

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

New numbers released Thursday by the Jackson mayor's office shows what others had suspected since Monday: a drop in the city's reserve fund below what's required by law.

Interim Director of Administration Michelle Battee-Day told the city council extra costs needed to balance the budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year caused that drop, including debt service payments, a master lease for city vehicles and insurance.

As the dozens in attendance learned what caused the problem, the back-and-forth comments between Mayor Tony Yarber and Council President Melvin Priester Jr. shed little light on the bigger question: who was responsible for the mishap in the first place?

"Over the past several days, there have been very specific accusations that the administration or the mayor, more specifically, has been dodging council questions concerning the budget, and this could not be more further from the truth," Yarber said, reading a written statement to the council.

Yarber said the city had information that it was not ready to release right away because of disclosure concerns and potential inaccuracies.

"Part of being ready to lead on day one is having the wisdom when and when not to place the city at risk," Yarber said.

The numbers confirm the city has a reserve fund deficiency of more than $4.1 million for fiscal year 2014-15.

That reserve fund is set aside to provide greater financial stability for the city. Now it's almost halfway depleted.

That data provided by the mayor's office prompted questions and discussion among the councilmembers for more than ninety minutes.

"The legal opinion in past years is that that money was untouchable, and would require action of the council to dip into that, and I'm no lawyer, but I don't see how you can do that without there being some consequence there," said Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon.

Barrett-Simon also brings up an important point: action by the council.

After all, the council did approve last year's budget.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen? The budget master is and always has been the city council," Yarber said to the council chamber audience. 

Priester took issue with that, saying he had been led to believe the reserve fund would be okay.

An email obtained by 3 On Your Side shows the conversation between Priester and the city's former director of administration, Trivia Jones, dated August 29, 2015.

Priester told Jones he thought some of the additional cuts proposed would have an "adverse impact on the city."

"We should be able to meet our reserve fund requirement without making these cuts," Priester wrote.

He then suggested what he called minor changes to cuts in various city departments, including legal and parks.

Priester also sent that email to Yarber as well.

Jones responded, saying they were "amenable to these further adjustments" and would make them, with a new balanced budget released the following week.

After reading Jones' response from last year to the council members at Thursday's meeting, Priester again expressed his frustration.

"We specifically asked whether or not the numbers presented met the reserve, and were told that they were," Priester said.

Video of a budget committee meeting from September 3, 2015, also appears to back up this claim as well.

In that meeting, Councilman De'Keither Stamps asked Jones if the city would be able to meet that 7.5 percent reserve fund.

After she went through some calculations, Jones told them they should have right at $9 million in fund balance.

"That pretty much covers our reserve without anything extra there," Jones said in the video.

Yarber had not been in attendance at that September meeting, held just days before the city council adopted the 2015-16 budget.

At Thursday's well-attended meeting, though, Yarber answered several concerns, including one by Councilman Charles Tillman, who said the council knew the city was in trouble financially and didn't take proper steps to save enough money.

"We proposed a budget last year that was extremely unpopular. It included some things that, to be honest with you, could have made many of us unelectable. And we chose not to go that route," Yarber said.

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