BY BRIAN JONES
Money dominated the June 18 meeting of the Columbus City Council, with discussions about the current financial status, travel in the fire department and issuance of emergency bonds. The council also questioned Police Chief Fred Shelton on incarceration rates and made two board appointments.
Chief Financial Officer Deliah Vaughn said the city’s general fund was at about $7 million.
“For the month of May, our bank balance in the general fund is $4.2 million,” she said. “There is $2.8 million, for a grand total of $7 million. For the month of May there is a decrease in general fund revenue from the previous year by about $76,000.
“Overtime for the month of May included a total of 3,044.45 hours,” she said. “We paid out about $60,876. That’s $3,208 less than April.”
The board took no action.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin interrogated Fire Chief Martin Andrews about travel requests his department made. As part of the spending reduction plan, all non-essential, non-emergency travel is being cut. Andrews had several items on the agenda that involved travel, mostly pertaining to maintaining the department’s accreditation.
The items were originally part of the consent agenda, but Gavin asked that they be removed and discussed one-by-one.
The first request was to send an engineer to a meeting in Gulfport, with expenses reimbursed by the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Department of Homeland Security donated a communication vehicle to us,” Andrews said. “They have meetings to set up the operational part, and (the engineer) is required to be there.”
The cost is $273, Andrews said.
The travel request was approved unanimously on a motion from Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and a second from Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor.
The second request was for an engineer to attend a mass casualty training event in Jackson.
“This is required in order for our Homeland Security funds to continue to come in,” Andrews said. “Our engineer is at a meeting right now and will come back with $5,000 worth of equipment that we didn’t have to pay a dime for.”
“This is a requirement?” Gavin asked.
“All the requests we have before you are requirements,” Andrews said.
“What happens if we don’t go?” Gavin asked.
“We stop getting grants from Homeland Security,” Andrews said.
The travel request was approved unanimously on a motion from Taylor and a second from Jones.
The third request was for travel to Atlanta for re-accreditation purposes.
“I know you’re going to tell me this is absolutely necessary,” Gavin said. “Is this an emergency?”
“This is our national accreditation,” Andrews said.
“If we don’t go, will we lose our accreditation?” Jones asked.
“Yes,” Andrews said. “This is a very tedious process. If you remember we were going to one in March that was in California. We canceled that one because it would be such a large amount. We saved that money and are going to Atlanta in August instead. We’re going to drive to Atlanta. It is critical if we want to keep our accreditation.”
“I understand that the citizens got an insurance break because of our accreditation,” Gavin said. “But looking at the cost of all these trips it looks like it’s getting to cost the taxpayer a good little bit.”
“We have the money in our budget,” Andrews said. “We cut our budget $108,000 this year from the start. Then we went back and cut an additional $53,000. Out of that $53,000 we took $25,000 off of our training. We’re not trying to go over our budget that we’re allowed.”
“This trip is $1,400,” Gavin said.
“That’s for the peer assessor,” Andrews said. “We have to fly him in and put him up in a hotel and pay his per diem and get him a rental car. We talked to the peer assessor and we’re going to try to only pay him for two nights. We made provisions for this and we have stayed strictly within our budget as a whole. It is very important to me to keep this accreditation. We keep (travel) to a minimum as best we can, but if we stop it…you talk about wasting taxpayers’ money, what about all the things we’ve been through already? Accreditation is not just now, it’s something we live every day at the fire department. It ain’t a thing you pick up and put down. It’s a process.”
“This is the biggie as far as whether we get reaccredited or not,” Mayor Robert Smith. “We had a peer assessment team a few months ago that was here, who came in from other states, and now one member of that team will be there in Atlanta.”
“That’s right,” Andrews said. “We will go before the commission and they will ask us questions.”
“If all the people aren’t there to answer questions, will it affect our reaccreditation?” Jones asked.
“Yes, it possibly could,” Andrews said.
Box spoke up in support of Andrews.
“I appreciate Mr. Gavin being tenacious about this,” Box said. “I was assigned to the finance committee and we developed a plan and we have been trying real hard to stay within the guidelines of that. It may seem like we’ve broken the freeze, but most of the time when we made exception to it has been in the case for public safety. We had a finance committee meeting today, and I have been on the council for 12 years and I got more information today from (Vaughn) than I have ever had. In her report she said we’re making progress. I won’t say that we’re on-line to save the $980,000 we said we would, but we are going to get awful close.
“I said all that to say that a lot of that came from your department,” Box said. “You held off on hiring people. The number from the fire department is significant. I, for one, don’t want to lose our fire rating.”
Taylor made a motion, seconded by Box, to approve the travel for the peer assessor. It passed 5-1, with Gavin voting no.
The discussion then moved to approving travel to the conference in Atlanta. The request was for Andrews, Smith, the assistant fire chief, the accreditation manager and the chief of training to travel, and for registration, fuel, hotel and meal expenses to be covered.
This time Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens joined Jones and Gavin in questioning Andrews, and the mayor had to break a tie to approve the request.
“Why do we have to send five people?” Gavin asked.
“We are going before the body that asks questions and approves accreditation,” Andrews said. “All departments send their command staff and the mayor. The mayor needs to be there because the commission wants to see that the city buys in to it.”
Everyone who goes will be questioned, Andrews said.
“You can’t answer these questions?” Gavin asked.
“I can’t answer all of them,” Andrews said.
“Each person is assigned to a different task,” Smith said.
“How often are the hearings?” Jones asked.
“Twice a year,” Andrews said. “Normally in March and August.”
“Could you scale this back?” Mickens asked. “Sending (five) people is something I just can’t…I don’t think we need everybody there to answer questions. If you’re the chief you ought to be able to answer questions. Let’s be real.”
“Whether it’s Columbus, Miss., or Podunk, New Jersey, when you go before the accreditation commission each department sends at least five or six people because they’re from different categories within the department. That’s just the process.”
“When we were sending people we were in the financial shape to do it, or we thought we were in the financial shape to do it,” Mickens said. “I can’t justify this.”
“Can I speak now?” Andrews said.
“I’m through with it,” Mickens said.
“I understand your concern, but we have scaled back,” Andrews said. “We have cut our training budget by $25,000 additionally. This trip right here is coming out of the training budget. We’re not going over, we’re not asking for any additional money. We planned this because we knew it was coming. Now to ask me to cut back and take a chance of losing accreditation, I don’t know what they’re going to ask me.
“If we don’t answer the questions right, we will not be reaccredited,” Andrews said. “I can’t say it no clearer. If we don’t have the person who has the information, we will not get reaccredited. This is not a game we’re playing to go on a trip. As a chief, I am very nervous about this. These people don’t play. I’m not going to go up there half-cocked and make this city embarrassed.”
“I’ve talked to several people about the fire accreditation going down,” Gavin said. “It’s not that much money. A $200,000 home might be $25 or $30 a year they’re saving. We’re spending a ton of money. This trip is $9,360. If we lose it…we didn’t have it before and we made it okay.”
“Do you want to fail?” Andrews said.
“No, but I want to save money,” Gavin said.
“I don’t know what other departments do, but we planned and we cut and we gave back a lot of money to this city,” Andrews said. “It comes to a point that I can’t cut anymore. Me and my assistant chief, we work shifts when people are off or sick or something to save money. We do that because this is what we love. Our firefighters do things every day that are not their job, and they don’t complain one bit. We are doing all we can do. There is only so much you can cut and be effective. When you starting cutting down below the bare bones you’re going to get negative results.”
Jones made a motion to table the request to get more information, and was seconded by Mickens. However, Taylor made a substitute motion to approve the request. His motion was seconded by Ward 5 Councilman Frederick Jackson.
Taylor, Box and Jackson voted yes, Mickens, Jones and Gavin voted no, leaving a tie. Smith voted yes to break the tie.
The council voted 6-0 to award the $5 million in General Obligation bonds to Trustmark. Trustmark’s bid was 3.34 percent interest, while Renasant’s was 4.48 percent.
The bonds are for storm recovery. They will be repaid with the FEMA reimbursement money that the city receives. FEMA only reimburses expenses, so the city has to pay on the front end and eventually be repaid.
The $5 million is a cap. They money will be drawn down in $100,000 increments, and interest will only be paid on the amount used. There is no penalty for early repayment.
Mickens questioned Police Chief Fred Shelton about the number of inmates in the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center.
“I saw on the news yesterday concerning the prisoners we have locked up,” he said. “I understand it can hold 288 and normally holds around 250. Right now we’re sitting at 150. Crime went down drastically?”
“I can’t make that determination,” Shelton said. “Some of those prisoners are from the county, some from Mississippi Department of Correction. I’m not prepared to give you an answer on that right now.”
“We got a grand jury coming up and there were no cases,” Mickens said.
“That’s not true,” Shelton said. “This last term we submitted 47 cases.”
“How many indictments were there?” Mickens asked.
“I don’t know,” Shelton said.
“Is the number of prisoners they house for us down also?” Jones asked.
“We’re getting people to court faster and we’re not letting them sit there,” Shelton said. “We try to get them out as soon as we can and get them bound over to the grand jury.”
No action was taken.
The council made two board appointments:
Amber Brislin was appointed to the Historic Preservation Commission for a four-year term. She is replacing Mark Ward, who did not see reappointment. She was the sole applicant.
Michael Tate was reappointed to the Columbus Light and Water Board for a second five-year term. Tate was the sole applicant.