Jackson City Council split on one-mill tax increase for police pay

Jackson City Council 2021
Jackson City Council 2021(WLBT)
Published: Aug. 27, 2021 at 2:42 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - After two hours of deliberation Friday, members of the Jackson City Council were no closer to knowing whether there was enough support to push through a tax increase to fund police pay raises in next year’s budget.

The council’s Finance Committee met Friday to hammer out final details of its 2022 budget, with Committee Chair Aaron Banks saying the day before that he expected the meeting to wrap up pretty quick.

Instead, members talked for two hours about whether they would support a one-mill property tax increase as part of the budget to fund pay raises for senior police officers, firefighters, and communications staffers.

Following an informal straw poll vote, the council still appeared to be split on the issue, voting 4-2 to support a millage rate.

Council members Angelique Lee, Aaron Banks, Virgi Lindsay, and Brian Grizzell all said they would back the increase, while Councilmen Ashby Foote and Vernon Hartley said they would not.

Banks, though, said he would only support the tax hike if the administration committed to raising police pay even more, in an effort to help Jackson Police Department better compete with agencies in other cities.

The Ward 6 leader would like to see corporal pay increased to $45,000, sergeant pay increased to $48,000 and lieutenant pay increased to $51,000, in part, to bring back veteran officers who have left.

Chief of Staff Safiya Omari said the city would commit to developing a plan, but did have one in place Friday and would likely not have one in place before the budget is slated to be passed on Sept. 9.

“I am not a budget person. I’ve managed budgets. I’ve managed federal dollars and I know how important it is to make sure you are following guidelines in how those funds are used,” she said, “which is why I stated earlier we are willing to sit down and discuss ways we can use ARPA funds within the (federal) regulations to advance our public safety agenda.”

ARPA is the American Rescue Plan Act. The city is expected to receive more than $42 million from the act, which can be used for infrastructure needs, public safety, and COVID-19-related expenses.

Foote does not support a tax increase when the city has millions in ARPA funds it could dedicate to police pay.

How the city can use those funds for police remains in question. While council members have voiced their support for using ARPA dollars to fund pay raises, raises are not allowed under federal guidelines.

However, a consultant who spoke to the council Thursday said the money could be used for “premium pay,” which would allow the city to pay officers additional money on top of their salaries for responding to calls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lindsay, the council president, said she would reluctantly support the increase, even after she got pushback from some of her constituents.

“We really are at a place where there are so many unknowns. As I’ve said in these meetings for two weeks now, I’ve got grave concerns about other possible increases for our citizens, such as the garbage rate. We don’t know what that is. We don’t know all we’re facing with water and sewer,” she said. “There are so many unknowns that I’m reluctant to say that one mill is a great idea, even though it’s for public safety.

“That said, I also feel like we have to address crime and public safety issues,” she added. “This is a retention and recruitment issue.”

A one-mill increase would generate about $1.2 million a year in new revenue for the city and represent a $12 increase on a home valued at $100,000.

Home and business owners in Jackson already pay the highest millage among cities in the metro area, at 63.03 mills.

At the same time, the city has numerous challenges on the horizon, including some that could impact residents’ pocketbooks.

Garbage collection rates are expected to go up exponentially as part of a new solid waste removal contract. Rates were last increased more than a decade ago. On top of that, the city is facing billions of dollars in mandated water and sewer spending as part of agreements with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those challenges aside, the cash-strapped city is facing a severe officer shortage and a rising crime rate. JPD is short 59 officers, with 293 of 352 budgeted positions filled. Meanwhile, the capital city is on track to have its deadliest year on record in terms of homicides. As of August 26, 98 murders had been reported in the city, about 20 more than at the same time in 2020.

To help address those problems, the council approved raising starting pay for officers as part of the 2021 fiscal year budget. The fiscal year runs from October 1 of the current year to September 30 of the following year.

However, veteran officers, including corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants did not see a pay increase.

The administration’s proposal this year would raise corporal pay from around $37,000 to $41,000. It would do the same for corporal equivalents in the Jackson Fire Department and increase hourly wages for dispatchers and communications staffers.

Even following Friday’s straw poll, Lindsay and Banks were unsure if the council had enough votes to push through even a modest one-mill hike.

By state statute, the budget must be adopted by September 15. The council is expected to vote on the budget on September 9. A public hearing is slated for September 2.

Friday, Lindsay and Banks asked if cuts could be made elsewhere to fund the raises. Banks suggested making cuts to the advertising and marketing budget. The mayor’s office is recommending allocating $317,000 to advertising and marketing this year, up from the $213,000 that had been spent in the division so far in the current budget cycle.

Banks also asked whether cuts could be made to PEG, which runs the city’s public access network and streams council meetings, and whether cuts could be made in the council’s government budget.

Omari said cuts could be made in other departments, but she advised the council against it. Among reasons, she said many senior citizens rely on PEG to find out about city news. Council meetings are live-streamed not only on the city’s website and Facebook page but also on its public access network.

She told the council that asking for other departments to make cuts to give one department a raise also would be bad for morale.

“Our departments are operating at levels that require just superhuman efforts just to keep things going... They’ve already been cut to bare bones. When we go back to them and say they need to cut some more the message becomes ‘their work isn’t important.’

“When you look at areas where we get calls from residents and places where we’re supposed to deliver services, I hear all the time about how we just don’t have enough people to do it.”

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