By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Instead of resigning, Tupelo Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris wants the city to eliminate his job.
Norris’ preferred manner of departure seems appropriate, since he returned to Tupelo four years ago focused on lowering the city’s growing personnel costs.
He and his wife, a retired nurse, will continue living in Tupelo. Leaving the city’s payroll won’t stop Norris from attending future council meetings and making financial recommendations.
“I think it’ll be the same role, just not as a salaried employee,” he said. “My focus will be the same, helping as much as I can.”
Norris, 67, plans to keep office space in City Hall and remain as an unpaid consultant. He’ll focus on financing and funding the city’s ongoing, five-year capital projects budget.
Key goals facing the city when he returned full-time have either been addressed or remain a top priority for city leaders.
Between Norris’ departure as Tupelo city clerk and CFO in 1998 and his return in 2010, overtime increased and overall personnel costs bulged.
“I certainly hoped when I came back that we would recognize the challenges that we faced,” Norris said last week.
He returned as the city just paid $840,598 in annual overtime and began working with other city leaders to steadily decrease the extra pay each year. Tupelo paid nearly 60 percent less overtime in 2012 and 2013 compared to the year prior to Norris returning.
After getting overtime in line, Norris and other city leaders have focused on lowering the city’s overall personnel costs to mirror sales taxes collected. He sees the ratio of personnel costs to sales tax collected as a strong indicator of the city’s fiscal management. Keeping the two numbers in line also limits the city’s payroll from expanding as a percentage of the city’s overall expenses. Limiting personnel costs – at more than $20 million, the single largest city expense – allows city leaders to spend more tax dollars on parks, community development and other quality of life amenities.
Today and Tuesday, City Council members and Mayor Jason Shelton will debate a plan Norris helped craft to eliminate five positions from the city’s general fund, including Norris’ CFO position, to give employees a 1 percent pay raise. The debate will seesaw between what’s proposed and some council members wanting more personnel costs trimmed and employees given pay raises, something nonexistent in Tupelo since 2011.
Either way, city leaders seem focused on limiting local government’s highest expense while trying to find ways to help encourage growing the city’s tax base.
“I believe everyone is committed to take care of the city’s employees but recognizing limitations to what you can invest in personnel costs and continue to decrease them,” Norris said.
Whether or not the City Council passes Shelton’s plan for personnel cost savings, Norris still will leave the city payroll “in the near future.”
“I feel good about the city,” he said. “It’s in really good hands.”
Norris said his confidence in Tupelo will allow him to focus some attention to other local governments looking for fiscal fitness. He’ll consult with other municipal governments and counties to improve public finances.
“My first focus is Tupelo,” he said. “My second focus is looking at how everyone can do better.”
Shelton soon will likely recommend the council add CFO to City Clerk Kim Hanna’s responsibilities. Norris hired Hanna when she began as a Tupelo controller and deputy city clerk in 1994. She was promoted to city clerk in 2009.
Shelton has routinely complimented the city’s budget and accounting department as the best in the state. He said Norris’ transition from the city’s payroll to consultant won’t change his impression.
“We’ll still have the best team in the state,” he said. “Plus, we’ll have one other person.”