Q&A with Mayor on 100 days after storm

Does Biloxi have a city hall back?

City Hall re-opened a couple of weeks after the storm. Prior to that, mayor’s staff operated out of Public Safety Center, which became the defacto center of operations for city government while electricity was being restored at City Hall.

City Hall sustained some water damage as a result of roof damage, but otherwise did well. Floodwaters lapped on the front porch, but did not enter the building itself.

What Biloxi services are back?

Nearly all city services have been restored for several weeks now, although some services are limited or in a new locations. For instance, Disaster Recovery Centers continue to occupy the Biloxi Community Center, and parts of the Donal Snyder Center, and we’ve had to re-locate the Farmers Market from Point Cadet Plaza to downtown.

Overall, we’re proud of the work our city employees have done and continue to do in restoring the services that our citizens have come to expect, and, frankly, deserve.

What are tax collections like?

You could say that the city’s share of gaming tax revenue has been off slightly. Actually, it’s been nill, as casinos have been shut down since prior to the storm.

As those who follow Biloxi municipal finances may know, the revenue to provide services for our residents is generated from three primary streams — gaming tax revenue, which amounts to more than a third of our revenue each year (about $20 million in current budget, which was drafted pre-Katrina); sales tax revenue, which amounts to about a quarter of the annual revenue, and property taxes, which are about 20 percent of the annual operating revenue.

The remainder, for the most part, comes from any federal or state grants we can acquire, or from fees for services.

Sales tax revenue for the past two months has been about half of what it was for the same months this time last year. We anticipate those revenues to begin picking up later this month as more retail centers, such as Edgewater Mall see increased holiday shopping, and as three of our casino resorts re-open a few weeks from now.

Property tax revenue remains a big question mark. Will there be any sort of property tax amnesty for the past three months? That’s to be seen. How many residents will be in town and in a position to pay their property taxes come January? That’s to be seen, too.

And property tax revenue this time next year will reflect the devastation of the storm, which means assessments and, as a result, the property taxes themselves, will be significantly lower.

What is the city budget status?

Municipalities operate under a fiscal year that runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, which means the City Council and I had essentially wrapped up work on our current budget in mid-August, shortly before Hurricane Katrina visited our city.

As a result of the enormous storm damage and the ensuing interruption to our revenue streams, the municipal budget, for all intents and purposes, became only a piece of paper.

Prior to the storm, the city’s monthly operating expenses – the cost of providing services to our residents – averaged between $4 million and $4.25 million each month. And, since the storm, we’ve faced a considerable number of new and emergency expenses.

As a result, we’ve frozen spending on all capital projects, we’ve eliminated discretionary spending (such as sponsorships and grants to civic groups), and we’ve implemented a hiring freeze in all city departments.

These steps, along with the conservative manner in which we’ve managed city finances over the past several years, have certainly helped cushion the impact of this storm, but we must remain vigilant in watching expenditures.

Make no mistake, even with the windfall the city received from the $10 million business interruption policy, we still face daunting challenges over the next several months.

What’s the most promising sign of recovery in Biloxi?

We’ve been seeing a number of encouraging signs since Aug. 29. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, as our city reeled from the enormity of the destruction, the residents of Biloxi, some still in shock, went about the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives.

They exhibited that same can-do spirit as their ancestors before them, when this city was hit by Hurricane Camille or faced uncertain economic times.

Relief workers from across this country have been inspired by what they’ve seen firsthand here in Biloxi — and it’s something we’ve known for years: that the people of Biloxi are up to the challenge. It’s made me very proud to be mayor of this great city.

Those views notwithstanding, we’ve been encouraged by how quick our economic centers are bouncing back. Edgewater Mall re-opened its doors a few weeks ago.

Three of our casino resorts will be back in operation — thousands of hotel rooms, too — in a matter of weeks, and we’re continuing to see developers come forward with proposals that will employ thousands of people and generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and local tax revenue.

Make no mistake, Biloxi is on the way back.

What s the biggest challenge facing the city?

As stressful and difficult as the daily challenges we faced — and overcame — in the days immediately after the storm, we also realized at that time that we would also face a host of issues and decisions that would have implications for generations to come.

The biggest challenge we face at the moment is balancing the day-to-day issues with the planning for long-term recovery.

We’re painfully aware of the short-term issues – establishing temporary housing, moving daily traffic on our limited roadways, and rebuilding our vital facilities.

We also face the task of implementing elevation codes that are fair to property owners in low-lying areas yet minimize the threat from future storms and flooding.

Of course the most vital issue we face is reaching consensus on an overall vision or blueprint for the future of our city.

It should be a plan that embraces and enhances those qualities that have made Biloxi such a special place through the years – and will continue to do so for generations to come.

This vision should include safe and well-designed streets and neighborhoods, thoughtful land-use and zoning that will protect and promote our small-town charm and the excellent quality of life that we had come to appreciate.

Developing this plan and bringing this vision into focus promises to be a huge task, and must generate a broad and diverse public discussion.

But consider this: We’ve survived an unprecedented event, and we’re a stronger community as a result. We’re now in an unprecedented position, where we can realize unprecedented potential.

The prosperity and opportunity we enjoyed over the past 10 to 12 years was only a glimpse of the success we will have in our future.

We’ll get there, but right now it’s up to us to make thoughtful decisions about our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren.

As I said, the hard work and undying spirit the people of Biloxi have shown over the past couple of months make me extremely proud to serve as mayor of Biloxi.