McComb Mayor Quordiniah Lockley on Tuesday night laid the blame for infrastructure deficiencies in the city squarely at the feet of the previous mayor and board.
In a discussion on street paving and the city’s borrowing capacity during the board’s work session held at the Alpha Center in Baertown, Lockley presented a chart of the city’s millage rates that showed how general operations were impacted year to year even as total taxes mostly remained the same.
Total millage was 40.94 in the 2009-10 fiscal year, then dropped to 39.84 in 2010-11 and has remained there since.
The division of the tax funds among various purposes has varied significantly, however.
According to Lockley, as the millage required for a legacy retirement and disability fund and for debt service rose and fell, the city’s general fund millage was adjusted up or down to maintain the overall tax rate without an increase.
Support for the library also fluctuated slightly, but not to the degree the other rates did. The library was funded at 0.73 mills in 2009-10, went up to 0,77 mills the next two years and to 0.84 mills the year after that. The millage then fell to 0.74 mills in 2013-14, and has remained at that level since.
The other tax categories have been more volatile.
The millage for the retirement fund is determined and ordered by the state. In the past 10 years, after a 3.06-mill tax rate to fund payouts, the rate has been set as high as 3.52 mills and as low as 2.3 mills. The rate was 2.9 mills the past three years.
Debt service taxes were set at 6.95 mills 10 years ago and gradually dropped to 3.26 mills in 2014-15 as the city paid off some of its debt and made lower payments due to the amortization schedule.
More borrowing — $2 million in 2015 and $3.2 million in 2017 — pushed millage for debt service upward again, to 8.61 mills the past two years.
Meanwhile, the general fund millage sat at 30.2 mills in 2009-10, was as high as 33.08 mills for three years, 2012 to 2015, then gradually dropped to 27.59 mills, the rate of the past two years.
“I don’t know why (the previous board) did that, except so they could say the city was in good financial condition,” Lockley said. “It was not.”
The mayor cited the decline in general operating funds as the reason “why we can’t buy police cars,” and said the city has little room now to cut the budget or move money within the budget because 80 percent of the general fund is devoted to salaries.
“If people want things to get done, we have to increase the millage rate,” Lockley said. “We can’t do what the last board did.”
He reiterated the city’s borrowing capacity now of $5 million, what is left after the board pursued a $1.5 million bond issue in the fall to finance rebuilding of the Martin Luther King Recreation Center and continues to pay off several other bond issues and loans, including the borrowing for streets in recent years.
If the city borrows another $2 million for streets, Lockley estimated the highest yearly payout on a 15-year bond would be about $147,000 on a 3.45 percent interest rate. That would be slightly lower than the 3.5 percent rate achieved on the $2 million borrowed in 2015.
He said each mill of taxes brings in $98,200, which would require the tax rate to pay back a $2 million loan on his theoretical figures about 1.5 mills.
Public Works Director Alice Barnes gave board members her estimates of what it would cost if various streets citywide were paved, as well as costs for milling down the surfaces, and rated the streets from 1 to 5 as suggested priorities.
Selectman Ronnie Brock noted that the cost of doing everything on Barnes’ list exceeded $9 million and said, “It doesn’t look like we’d make a dent unless we borrow $3 million.”
He added that he didn’t want to borrow that much money in case the city experienced an emergency.
A citizen in the audience at the work session asked if city leaders had considered other methods of raising money, such as drawing more businesses to the city.
Lockley said he has engaged with a number of businesses, which “have their own reasons for not coming that the mayor and board cannot control.”
He said he had met with representatives of a company that announced plans to open a theater in McComb but since put those plans on hold.
He said the company had cited the attitude of former mayor Whitney Rawlings in their deciding not to proceed originally, then decided that a 10-screen theater would not be financially viable in this market. Plans were then scaled down to a five-screen facility, Lockley said, but federally imposed tariffs on various products from other countries threw up another barrier.
Rawlings declined to comment on Lockley’s allegation.
The mayor pitched his effort to create an entertainment district as another way to draw in businesses through such a district’s access to low-interest loans to repair and renovate properties, including those downtown.
The district Lockley is proposing would be roughly bound by Broadway and Railroad Boulevard north from 21st Street to Georgia Avenue, then jog eastward and proceed up Summit Street to Moore Street.
“We need people with a vision for something besides juke joints,” Lockley said. “We need the citizens to be more responsive. We need you to care about where you live.”