Mayberry by the Sea Part 1: The heat is on

Last month I caught up with an old friend for coffee. Like me, he is a St. Stanislaus alumni. Life has taken him away from the Bay though he and his family are still fairly close by over in Metro New Orleans. Like so many of you, he has been following the coverage on Slabbed of the unfolding financial disaster here in Bay St Louis. Unlike the rest of us, this guy has a career’s worth of experience in the intricacies of local government, politics and is an expert in the specialized field of Homeland Security and its application to local governments. As we visited on that topic, it was as two professionals as I took out and wore an old hat from my prior life auditing local governments.

Using Twitter to cover a City Council meeting makes it is as good as being there for those following the feed. The Council meetings in Bay St Louis are a throwback to days gone by in some respects as there are two public comment sessions, one at the beginning and one at the end of every meeting. It an example of a true participatory democratic process as literally anyone in attendance can grab the mike and let the council know what is on their mind. I’ve even seen certain hardcore meeting regulars and members of the media literally jump into a council discussion to ask questions or lend some wisdom. As a member of the public, I’m completely down with that and in fact I like it. If I were asked my opinion as a professional on the same subject however, my perspective and thus the advice I’d dispense would stand somewhat in conflict with my feelings as a member of the public. That fundamental conflict has shaped the coverage of the Bay’s financial demise here on Slabbed.

With budget season wrapping up the City has reached the fork in the road. The left fork increases taxes but beyond that would do little to improve the uneven and at times nonexistent delivery of services to the City’s residents, while the right fork would require spending cuts, that by definition would have to be so draconian that everyone would certainly feel the pain as only core services of police and fire would be relatively unimpacted. None of this counts building back a financial reserve. The challenges are daunting. I could make the case for both increasing taxes and cutting City personnel. I’m not though because there are other people which are very capably handling that debate.

Last Friday the City was visited by the Deputy State Auditor and an employee from the Office of the State Auditor’s Technical Assistance division, a story Slabbed broke literally real time. That visit and its disclosure has caused an uproar. Last Tuesday night, after I left the City Council meeting, Mayor Fillingame evidently addressed the OSA visit to City Hall and he made certain assertions regarding what the Auditor’s Office employees had to say about their visit. Word of the Mayor’s report evidently made it up to Jackson and Stacey Pickering at light speed and that prompted an official statement yesterday afternoon to the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government which I published along with the HCAFGG statement on the subject. I fully intend to get to the bottom of this matter myself and share what I find with everyone because the public needs to know, especially when their taxes are on the verge of going up 28% according to published reports.

Once, a long time ago in a small Mississippi municipality far away, the Mayor and local Board of Aldermen decided they didn’t like the State’s purchasing law so for a solid year every purchase this small City made was done under the “emergency authority” section of the law. The Board thought they were smart but as an auditor I saw it as an exercise in group insanity as an emergency can not be confected, it must exist in reality. More than that though is the fact that my experience is typically the Mississippi Code provides very good “bright lines”. Those Governing boards that stay within the boundaries are in the proverbial well zone. Those that don’t and stray, up to the top of fool’s hill for example, can sometimes learn some very hard lessons. My mind is open to the possibility Friday’s OSA visit is the first step the Bay City┬áCouncil is taking in compulsory attendance in the School of Hard Knocks.

We have another Budget hearing tonight at 5:30pm at City Hall. Stay tuned.

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