By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Each of Tupelo’s past five mayors dipped into the city’s rainy day funds at least once during their tenures, according to figures from the city’s Finance Department.
Mayor Ed Neelly, who served when the national recession hit, borrowed the most at nearly $2.3 million. The funds kept Tupelo’s budget propped up at a time when its biggest revenue source – sales tax collections – fell by nearly $1 million.
The current mayor, Jack Reed Jr., comes in as the city’s second biggest borrower since 1985. He twice dipped into rainy day funds to balance the budget during a still-struggling economy. Reed took a total of $1.7 million during his first two years in office.
The tactic allowed both Reed and Neelly to avoid laying off employees or reducing city services during the worst years of the recession.
“Ideally, I believe that we should invest the reserve fund in non-recurring assets that return long-lasting value to our citizens,” Reed said. “I thought it was appropriate to use some of it for general fund purposes early in this term because the recession had impacted our sales tax revenues so dramatically.”
Reed expects to finish the current fiscal year without having touched the emergency cash account and plans on doing the same in FY2013.
Fiscal years run Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
City Council members this term repeatedly have warned against borrowing from the municipality’s unreserved cash balance for any reason. Two of them – Markel Whittington of Ward 1 and Jim Newell of Ward 3 – voted against Reed’s budget two years ago because it dipped into rainy day funds.
“This council is charged by the taxpayers to be fiscally responsible for the finances of this great city, and I believe the taxpayers deserved a balanced budget without using surplus funds,” Whittington said at the time. Both men, along with Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan, also complained that personnel costs were too high.
Finance Department records show the city’s personnel costs have exceeded sales tax revenues every year since 2002. At the same time, borrowing has increased: A collective $4.2 million in the decade since 2002 versus a total of $1.3 million in the 17 years beforehand.
Mayor Larry Otis presided during the first year that personnel costs exceeded sales tax.
He borrowed $131,656 when it happened – his first and only dip into the rainy day funds.
Mayor Glenn McCullough preceded Otis’ term and had borrowed $205,216 during his two years in office.
Before that, Mayor Jack Marshall presided during a 12-year tenure during which he dipped into the emergency fund balance three times for a total of nearly $1.1 million.
Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of more than $2.1 million today.
A majority of the borrowing supported projects related to Tupelo Regional Airport, said Finance Director Lynn Norris, who was present during Marshall’s time in office.
More than $19.5 million remains in the city’s reserve fund balance – of which $16.6 million isn’t dedicated to a particular purpose.
Reed said that’s a healthy amount.
“I believe we should keep a reserve of $8.5 million to $10 million for emergencies,” he said. “I am committed to that.”