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The Rinaldi Report

       by Peter Rinaldi


“Progressive” government

            The concept of progressive government is that politicians have good ideas to lead a community forward. In theory, our leaders harness the engine of government to create initiatives that bring an improvement in the general welfare of the people and some measure of enhanced prosperity.

          But it would be a foolish conclusion to draw that the city of Natchez government is progressive in its direction. Two mayors and six aldermen have been mired in a six-year struggle to comprehend the nature of their own finances.

         Specifically, the city does not have a handle on its revenues nor its expenditures. Its bookkeeping and accounting system is non-functional and the figures enumerated on tally sheets are clearly not reliable.

            For example, entries like a -$70,000 balance appeared on one account. If you had $70,000 in an account, you have $70,000 to spend. If you spend the $70,000, then you would have a zero balance. But it’s not possible to have a -$70,000 balance. It’s not possible to have less than a zero balance in an account. This is just an example. There are many other instances of stupid bookkeeping, too many to mention in this small space.

         Despite Mayor Brown’s assurances during his campaign that improved financial management would reduce or eliminate inter-fund loans, the practice has continued. Worse, the city does such loans illegally. The city has often transferred the money from one fund to another without an aldermanic vote and no mention of the transfer in the minutes. That’s a violation of law.

            The mayor has taken the attitude that financial problems are more the concern of the aldermen and not his major worry. By charter, the aldermen do have the legal responsibility to assure votes occur and are recorded. But voters elected Butch Brown because they expected improved fiscal management, not more of the same old, same old. His is the big boss, the chief administrator.

            Two years in a row, the city has missed the statute deadline of Sept. 15 for submitting a budget to start Oct. 1. Not only did the city not prepare a budget in timely fashion, it did not advertise its notice in time either. The purpose of the notice is to give the public an opportunity for comment. And starting the budget process in July-August  would give aldermen a chance to evaluate spending by department. Aldermen should debate what should be spent on police, fire, public works, senior citizens, the convention center, tourism and capital improvements, among dozens of items in the budget. Instead, the city designated a sub-clerk who has not done the budget before to throw something together. If it sticks on the wall, it’s a good budget. The city will hold its budget hearing Oct. 6, but did not place newspaper notices in time to making the hearing legal.

            A client said to me this past week, “Having Butch Brown is similar to the placebo effect.” In his words, Brown provides the illusion that he is the medicine to make government perform better, even if he is not.

            One positive I’ve noticed during Brown’s latest tenure is that there seems to be less internal racial conflict within city hall and the aldermen’s meetings. That’s a good thing. The aldermanic meetings, run by the mayor, appear to be professionally managed. That’s important, too. But there’s little doubt finances continue to be a mess because no one – Mayor Brown, City Clerk Donnie Holloway, or the six aldermen included – knows where the city stands financially.

            Things are so messed up, we have yet to receive the city audit from 2013 and here we are entering the fiscal year for 2015. And Gillon and Company knows how to do audits if they’re provided accurate and intelligible documentation.

            There’s been a tendency to blame City Clerk Donnie Holloway for all the goof-ups. Surely, Holloway deserves his share of the blame. But the mayor and aldermen all played a role (along with the City Clerk) in hiring a series of deadheads for so-called in-house “accountants.” The new hires failed in their tasks. The last Gillon report noted the lack of training on city clerk personnel. Translate that to mean in effect, “they’re incompetent.”

            In a recent editorial, I mentioned that the city’s newly installed accounting software and reports should be scrapped. They’re not as efficient and readable as the old software and compilations designed by the late Gary Valentine. In retrospect, Valentine’s work kept city officials illuminated and informed, whereas the new system has completely failed to inform.

            The public is tired of excuses. It doesn’t take years and years to straighten out bookkeeping and accounting, if you know what you’re doing. The obvious conclusion is the mayor, city clerk and aldermen do not know what they’re doing.

            This reoccurring problem takes all the hot air out of the balloon of the idea of progressive government. The fable is that city politicians will lead us to a Promised Land of good government and economic prosperity. In fact, they appear more as juvenile, wrangling little boys and girls, concerned about their raises and their peevish power, inept when it comes to managing the most important task – finances.

            At the core, Natchez remains a good little town with many positives and some deeply entrenched problems. Sadly, city government appears to be one of those problems. You can understand why critics believe Natchez City Hall is more an impairment to progress. The concept that politicians are “leading us forward” is simply delusional.


Not all the news is bad

            The media gets deserved criticism for peddling “bad” news or news that has negative connotations. Of course, much news is neutral, neither good nor bad. And some is actually good. One blurb worthy of mention is the recent announcement from Natchez city officials that they would not be getting a grant to build a second senior citizens center on the north side of town.

            That’s incredibly good news, because the idea of building a second center had the word, “boondoggle,” written all over it. Besides the duplication of services, a second center would have meant larger payrolls and more program expenses. The city already has trouble paying for what it now owns and runs.

            There’s a ray of sunshine behind the dark cloud of the loss of a potential grant. Let’s enjoy it.




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