City trims half of discretionary spending

The Biloxi City Council this morning cut about half of the budgeted $4.9 million in discretionary spending, eliminating funding for special events, museums, and social service and community groups.

However, council members, who unanimously supported the measure, said groups could appeal the decision on a case-by-case basis in hearings to be scheduled in the future.

Mayor A.J. Holloway also told council members that he had frozen nearly all of the multi-million-dollar capital projects budget, and he had issued an order freezing all municipal hiring. The maayor also told councilmembers he thought the city would be able to avoid laying off any of its 674 fulltime employees.

The council had reached agreement on a $135 million budget days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, and members formally OK’d the document in mid-September, in time for the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Councilmembers had acknowledged that the document faced revisions since its revenue projections for the year — more than $20 million in gaming revenue taxes, nearly $13 million in sales taxes, and nearly $8 million in property taxes – were expected to fall woefully short because of the storm.

With today’s action, the mayor and council took steps to dramatically curb municipal spending, which has averaged between $4 million and $4.25 million a month in the past year.

“Councilmembers did the prudent thing today,” said Holloway, who has frequently advocated the city retaining a financial cushion in the event of a disaster. “We’re better off than a number of a local governments, but like everyone we’re certainly facing some short-term uncertainty.

“We’ve incurred a great deal of emergency expenses, such as overtime and purchases of equipment in the wake of the storm, and although we expect reimbursements from FEMA and our insurers, we still need to closely monitor all spending.”

Only a handful of the 72 agencies, groups and special events survived the cuts to the FY ’06 discretionary spending, a section of the budget known as “non-departmental expenditures.”

Funding was preserved in cases where financial obligations were in place, such as the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport expansion ($115,000) and Coast Transit Authority ($530,000), which is constructing a downtown intermodal transit center and has provided vital transportation for those who lost their automobiles in the storm. The largest line item to survive the non-departmental cuts was a $1.76 million expense to cover the city’s property insurance.

Popp’s Ferry bridge bid opening, Part 2

Bids for a contract to begin repairing the Popp’s Ferry bridge in west Biloxi are scheduled to be opened Wednesday morning, and Mayor A.J. Holloway said he hopes to call a special meeting of the City Council as early as Wednesday afternoon to award a contract so work could begin.

The city had originally hoped to award a contract more than a week ago, but the federally funded project was re-bid after a contractor challenged the expedited advertising and bid process.

Holloway told councilmembers today that he hoped the contractor chosen for the job would be able to have the two-lane bridge open to traffic near Christmastime.

Holloway also told councilmembers that by Thanksgiving ‘06 at least two lanes of a new six-lane bridge connecting Biloxi and Ocean Springs should be in operation.

The new bridge would be 80 feet above the water at its highest point, it would not have a draw, and it would connect with U.S> 90 in Biloxi near Myrtle Street, near the entrance to the Isle of Capri Casino Resort.

Burn ban remains in effect in Biloxi

Biloxi Fire Chief David Roberts, whose firefighters battled an early morning blaze today near the site of the former Breakers Inn in west Biloxi, reminds Biloxians that a ban remains in effect on all outdoor burning.

“With all of the debris we still have in the city, it’s vitally important that people remember we have this burn ban in effect,” said Roberts, who noted the cause of the early morning fire remains under investigation. “This ban is expected to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, and, in fact, it’s in effect countywide at this time. Anyone who notices outdoor burning should immediately contact their local fire department.”

Storm info available at 435-6300

Information on municipal services and relief agencies is available around the clock on the city’s Storm Recovery Info Line at (228) 435-6300.

The three-minute recorded message, which is updated several times a day, can handle as many as 10 callers at a time.