Holloway: ’05 city budget faces increased expenses

Mayor A.J. Holloway has proposed a municipal budget for Fiscal Year ’05 that shows slight increases in gaming and sales tax revenue over ‘04, but those gains will be absorbed by increases in the cost of fuel, employee health insurance, and employee pay, as well as the additional costs of staffing a new fire station to serve the Woolmarket and Eagle Point communities.

The $143.7 million budget – down from the $160.5 million budget of ’04 – contains no city property tax increase, and includes a capital projects budget that shrunk from $64.5 million in ’04 to $43.3 million in the ’05 budget, which reflects the completion of such multi-million-dollar projects as the widening of Popp’s Ferry Road, construction of a new Back Bay Boulevard, and the final phases of the $10 million sports complex.

The mayor discussed the budget during a luncheon meeting of the Edgewater Rotary club today at the Broadwater hotel.

“We’ve made significant progress on some of the major, multi-million-dollar projects that we’ve been working on for several years,” Holloway said. “Drafting a city budget in Biloxi has never been an easy task. Years ago, the city didn’t have any money to speak of. Now, we have money, but our responsibilities are much greater than ever before.”

The city’s share of the tax on gross gaming revenue is expected to be $19.2 million in ’05, an increase of $430,000 over ’04, and the city’s share of sales tax revenue is expected to total $12.4 million, a $900,000, or 7.8 percent, increase over ’04.

A key figure in the budget is the general fund, or operating revenue, which is derived from gaming and sales tax revenue, and money generated from property taxes, licenses and permits. The general fund, which is $53.9 million in the ’05 budget, is the money used to fund city departments and provide day-to-day city services.

“Gaming and sales tax revenue now amount to more than half – 58.6 percent, to be exact – of our annual operating revenue,” Holloway said, “and property tax amounts to 15 percent of the annual revenue.”

The ’05 budget, however, includes several increases in expenses. Among them:

–The cost to maintain the current level of coverage of health insurance for city employees and their families increases by as much as $700,000.

–An across-the-board 3 percent pay increase for city employees will require $750,000.

–Two new fire trucks are included in the budget, a $350,000 pumper to replace a 1988 vehicle at the Bay Vista Fire Station, and an $850,000 aerial-platform truck for the public safety center. The aerial-platform truck, which replaces a 20-year-old ladder truck, will be purchased over three years through a lease-purchase agreement. Another fire department expense: $682,000 for the annual operating budget of a new fire station now under construction at Eagle Point.

–The rising cost of gas and diesel will increase the city’s fuel budget by $178,000 over the ’04 level.

–Additionally, the city’s solid waste collection fee will increase by $145,000 over ’04 because of new subdivisions and the addition of the Wells Ferry area into the city.

“These are some new expenses this year,” Holloway said. “They’re things that we knew were coming and planned for, but they have to be budgeted nonetheless.”

The mayor and City Council are holding public hearings to discuss the proposed budget over the next several weeks, with a final budget scheduled to be in place in mid-September.