TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton’s first budget he’ll present to the City Council will likely not include contracting with an outside law firm.
Shelton, beginning his second month in office and preparing his first budget, said in an interview with the Daily Journal that the document of financial priorities will include creating an in-house legal department within city government.
Tupelo-based law firm Mitchell, McNutt & Sams has contracted with the city for legal services for 36 of the last 40 years, dating back to former Mayor Clyde Whitaker’s administration.
Generally speaking, Shelton said the budget he and the city’s financial team prepare will reflect the fiscal conservatism he often touted on the campaign trail. It won’t include employee pay raises and will likely freeze hiring for open positions.
“The goal is essentially managing last year’s budget in balanced approach,” Shelton said.
An attorney, Shelton said an in-house city attorney would be “budget neutral or even save money.” City records show annual spending on legal fees with the law firm ranges from about $300,000 to $400,000, not including legal expenses related to Tupelo’s annexation court battle that ended last year.
Attorney John Hill has represented the firm at City Council meetings and other municipal issues, while other staff attorneys assist with a variety of legal cases.
Shelton sees Mitchell, McNutt & Sams continuing to represent the city in ongoing cases where changing attorneys would be problematic.
Mitchell, McNutt & Sams has represented governmental entities including municipalities, counties, school boards and numerous other public sector boards and commissions. “I have nothing but respect for their firm,” Shelton said.
But he said the fact that the change could save the city money was a reason to make the change, and said he would conduct a search for a qualified in-house legal counsel. He said he had no one specifically in mind.
Conservative budgeting coupled with city budget projections of flat sales tax growth and increases in property taxes only through the addition of recently annexed property set the tone for a budget season less likely to approve new funding requests.
The current fiscal year budget is set at about $36 million.
City employees, who last received a cost of living raise in Fiscal Year 2012, shouldn’t expect any pay increases in the mayor’s budget. Shelton said the city will likely place a hiring freeze on current vacant positions.
Departments in the city with high-dollar requests, such as a new fire truck costing nearly $500,000, may have to wait until the next fiscal year before making the purchase. Unlike his predecessor, former Mayor Jack Reed Jr., Shelton said his goal is to balance the city’s budget without use of bonds for expensive items or dipping into the city’s $18 million in reserves.
However, the mayor’s plans to create a new city department and his ideas about city personnel could meet some resistance on the City Council.
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said he was unaware of the mayor’s proposals, and that no meetings have been held with the council related to the Fiscal Year 2014 budget that must be approved in just more than a month, a requirement of state law.
Whittington said he and other council members have their own ideas about personnel, including a reduction of 50 employees and providing those still with jobs with a 10 percent pay increase.
Whittington questioned Shelton’s recent filling of the vacant communications director position and his planning to add a legal department but wanting to freeze other vacant positions.
“If he wants to control personnel costs, why are we adding to the personnel?” Whittington said.
In Tupelo’s form of government, the City Council sets policy and approves the city’s funding and expenditures while the mayor runs day-to-day functions of the city. Shelton will provide a proposed budget to the City Council, which then can make changes before approving it.
“The power of the council is the power of the purse strings,” Whittington said.
Council President Nettie Davis of Ward 4 could not be reached by the Daily Journal late Wednesday for a response to the mayor’s proposals.