By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves agreed Monday that the annual Mississippi picnic in Central Park in New York is a great event, but he still wanted to know details of the expenses incurred by Mississippi taxpayers for it.
Reeves, who is presiding this year over the Legislative Budget Committee as it hears from agency heads before putting together a budget proposal for the 2014 session, had questions Monday of numerous agencies about travel and other expenses. Monday was the opening day of the hearings that will continue through Thursday.
“What we are trying to do is dig down on some of the individual expenses,” said Reeves, adding that he favors giving agency heads more flexibility in how they can spend the money appropriated to them by the Legislature, but in exchange a higher level of accountability should be demanded. He said agency heads answering questions from the Legislature is part of that accountability.
Reeves asked Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Brent Chistensen about the need to send 15 employees to the annual June event in Central Park at a cost of about $3,000 each.
Christensen said the event gives the MDA an opportunity to highlight Mississippi to a diverse and powerful group of people.
“It is a great opportunity to combine economic development and tourism,” Christensen said.
Reeves also asked Christensen about other travel expenditures for the agency. Christensen said any use of the state airplane by his agency is to show potential economic development prospects sites in the state or to travel to meet a prospect when time restraints would make commercial travel problematic.
In total, MDA is requesting an increase of 3 percent or $646,000 in state funds to $22.2 million. Of that amount, Christensen said $483,000 would be to step up economic development efforts, such as opening a Mississippi office in South Korea and to support existing businesses.
The remainder – $162,000 – would be to increase the amount of state money to provide grants to local communities to help with festivals.
Malcolm White, the state’s tourism director, said he believes the local festivals enhance Mississippi’s tourism efforts. He said this year there were 99 requests for grants totaling $400,000. MDA has only $300,000 in the program.
“A great focus is telling the Mississippi story … building on our product and selling it to the world,” White said.
Reeves also asked about salary increases at the Treasury Department. Sherri Hilton, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Lynn Fitch, said the increases were approved by both the Personnel Board and the Legislature to get salaries in line with what people in similar positions are paid in other agencies.
Hilton said, the agency has had an employee turnover rate of 48 percent during the last three years.
She said, “A starting position in the Treasurer’s accounting division is $7,000 less than the same position at the Department of Revenue and the State Auditor’s Office. Changes had to be made to reduce (the state’s financial) risk and improve customer service.”