City priorities need to be re-prioritized

Published 5:19 pm Friday, September 23, 2011

Full disclosure: I live on Phillips Drive in Demopolis.

My council representative is Jack Cooley.

I’ve had one city related problem during the four years in my home, which Police Chief Tommie Reese solved. I didn’t contact Jack directly.

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My road does not need paving and I have city water.

From my perspective, the city services provided to me personally and to my neighborhood are above adequate.

The Demopolis city budget has been a hotly debated topic since its meeting last week. With another week until its next meeting, it will likely be so for the next several days.

The root of the concern is the use of reserve funds. Moreover, it’s the rate at which the reserves will be used to cover a deficit over the past 12 months and are expected to be used in the coming 12.

I share those concerns. If you were a small business owner and consistently operated at a deficit, one of two things would happen: 1] you would go out of business or 2] you would fire your business manager.

Challenging economic times have necessitated the re-inventing of the wheel. How many businesses do you know that are operating in 2011 under the same guidelines and practices as 2005? I don’t know of any.

The budget proposal currently held by the city council represents an attempt to adapt changing economic climate. The fruit of that product, a deficit, represents a failure at that task.

It represents an operating loss of about $17,000 per month for 12 months. Every business has good and bad months. Many experience a negative month here and there. To experience 12 consecutive months with an operating loss is catastrophic.

And it is avoidable.

On page 7 of this newspaper you will find a letter from District 2 Councilman Mitchell Congress. In it he responds to several concerns raised in a similar letter published Wednesday.

I understand Mr. Congress’s argument that the city has made “promises” and he wants to be a man of his word. That’s respectable and I commend him for that.

Furthermore, I understand his position. He’s fighting for those whom he is appointed to represent.

However, the game has changed and so have the rules. What he considers a breach of promise, I consider applying economics to the problem.

That he compares the “port project” to a paving project is somewhat short sighted.

The port, when operating at its capacity, will be a money maker. It will dump cash into the city coffers and will create jobs and opportunity in and around Demopolis. That will dump more cash into the city coffers.

Revenues generated from lease agreements, taxes and jobs can pave roads and fund water projects for decades.

Simply paving a road will earn exactly zero dollars for the city of Demopolis.

The bond issue for the port was an investment. A bond issue for paving and fire station renovations is an expense.

Furthermore, there are grants available for fire station renovations. I’ve attended several council meetings where the notion of applying for an FDA grant that would pay for the vast majority of the renovation is raised. The argument has been raised that it may take a year to hear whether or not we’ve been awarded the grant. From my perspective, a year is worth $750,000.

What’s the hurry? Councilman Congress mentioned in his letter that the building was an eyesore. I know many others who share his position on that.

And yes, in a city that puts so many resources into beautification, it certainly does stand out.

It’s not the Taj Mahal but what’s the fiscal priority of an eyesore? Is it $750,000 in a year that we’re projecting a budget deficit of approximately one-third of that figure. Not in my opinion.

If it’s operational, and not a danger to those that walk by it or occupy it, it’s prime to move to the back burner.

That brings us to Sunset Road. This item has been on the city council’s agenda for as long as I’ve lived here. Councilman Congress is correct that the council should have foreseen this financial obstacle when the road was annexed. From what I could find, that was around 1994.

Here we sit 17 years later. This obviously could have been, and should have been, dealt with in the years where the city was operating at a surplus – with checking account money, not savings account money.

Mike Baker’s paving priority list can be broken down into bite size pieces. That paving work can be done when city funds become available. That may mean three roads get paved. It may mean seven roads are paved, and it may mean no one’s roads are paved.

Department heads have done a good job cutting fat from top to bottom. They were challenged to find a way to do more with less and in most cases have done so.

The challenges facing them now are hardly different than those facing them before.

As I was beginning my career as a newspaper publisher, I was given some sage advice by someone exponentially smarter than myself.

He said, “Run it like it’s your name on the bank note.”

I’ve lived by those words as closely as I could in the business decisions that I make daily and the things I do, say or write.

Were my “name on the note” for the City of Demopolis, many of these projects would be shelved while others were re-prioritized. People would likely walk away feeling “burned”. I would take those lumps knowing I had to “cut off a finger to save the hand.”

Winning a popularity contest is not a reasonable delegation of fiscal responsibility.

I had rather my city be solvent than popular.

The funding for these projects will come. How long will it take? Who knows.

What we do know is the funding is not there in the coming 12 months.

Jason Cannon is publisher of the Demopolis Times.