Mayor gives Finance Office grade of B-
In his annual State of the City address to the City Council, Mayor Johnny Magee gave a comprehensive review of 2019 and outlook for 2020, assessing each department with a letter grade.
With approximately 300 employees, the City of Laurel is No. 15 in the top employers in Jones County.
“We will be seeking to reward our employees with an increase in pay, if at all possible, this year,” Mayor Johnny Magee said, adding that the city adopted a mission statement that is to be displayed in each department: “The City of Laurel is dedicated to delivering excellent municipal services and public safety through participatory government that is responsive to our entire community and consistent through the fiscally responsible use of resources in a manner that promotes outstanding cultural, recreational, educational and economic opportunities for residents and businesses.”
The personnel handbook further emphasizes that goal with this, he said: “Every employee must remember that the City of Laurel is a taxpayer-supported entity and the citizens of the City paying those taxes should receive the best possible quality and highest standard of service possible.”
Those statements were the basis for the letter grade Magee gave each department, he said.
The Department of Finance is headed by City Clerk/Finance Director Mary Ann Hess. She has four other employees in this office. The administration proposed and council approved a 4-mil tax levy specifically for street repair and placed into its own fund, and 2019 was the first year of this collection. Funds that are received from the county for road and bridge maintenance and repair were also placed into its own fund for the purpose of street repair and maintenance. That total is “in the neighborhood of $800,000,” Magee said, “and we moved one half last year and will remove the other half in this year to this street fund.” Revenue from those two funds should give the city $1.3 million to $1.5 million for paving annually. “This will be the first time we would not have to borrow the funds to do paving,” Magee said.
The city and the school district showed increases in assessed valuation, up from $185 million in 2019 to $191 million in 202. The school district increased from $193 million to $197 million. The value of a mil increased for the city and the school district — from $176,000 to $181,900 for the city and from $184,300 to $188,400 for the schools.
“I always like to point out on our ad valorem tax, in 2019, we collected $21,483,703, which was an increase over last year by $1,444,708,” Magee said. “What is interesting about the ad valorem tax is that we collected $21,483,703, but the Laurel School District received the bulk of that to the tune of $12,748,686 and the city’s share was $8,735,017.”
Sales tax collections for 2019 went up to $9,177,031, a 3.7 percent increase from the previous year ($8,838,407). In 2018, the city had a 5.7 percent increase over the prior year.
“I would like to point out again that out of over 340 municipalities across the state, the City of Laurel consistently ranks No. 15-16 in sales tax diversions each year,” Magee said.
The recreation tax, which is often referred to as the tourism tax, collected $1,778,467 in 2019, a 3.2 percent increase over 2018.
Water and sewer rates went up 3 percent to cover increased costs from the public utility fund.
Magee also offered a recap of city bonds.
“In 2015, we issued a $10 million street bond,” he said. “A total of $1,666,356 was spent in 2019 and it has a balance of $4,169,184 left for remaining projects such as 5th Avenue and 13th Avenue paving. A $4.4 million recreational improvement bond was done for the addition at the Sportsplex. We have design costs spent so far out of this fund, and the balance is currently $3,970,946. A $3 million street bond has a remaining balance of $1,229,786, which will be used for our match for the Leontyne Price Gateway. We issued a $3 million drainage bond in 2019. In 2019, we refinanced the Schneider Loan, which was taken out to do energy savings projects in the amount of $2,662,857, saving the city $176,105 in interest.
The audit for Fiscal Year 2018 “was successful and clean,” Magee said, and corrective action was taken for four “audit findings” to ensure they are not repeated. The Fiscal Year 2019 audit is under way.
A total of 115 new business licenses were issued last year compared to 117 for 2018. As of Jan. 31, the City of Laurel had a cash balance total in all of its funds of $28,700,149.40. The bulk of those funds are in the capital improvement accounts where the city has taken out several bonds to pay for some major street and recreational improvements, Magee said.
The city also made its annual payment on radios used by police, fire, public works, inspection and others in the amount of $194,698, the fourth year of an 11-year loan. That debt is shared with Jones County, Ellisville and all the entities who use these radios.
“Our finances are in a firm position,” Magee said. “I give the City Clerk/Finance office a B-.”