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A fiasco of the highest degree

By By Terry Cassreino / assistant managing editor
Oct. 20, 2002
Budgets. Nothing else in city, county or state government is more basic, more fundamental, than the annual plan that shows how elected officials will spend taxpayer money.
But somehow, someway, Meridian botched the budget process this year so badly that nothing was final until last week's city council meeting well after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
And that came about a month after Mayor John Robert Smith presented councilmen with an $86.6 million spending plan that, unbeknownst to some of them and many residents, included a water rate increase.
The proposed increase left many people in the dark and unable to intelligently discuss a budget that would set spending priorities for the coming year and increase fees many residents pay each month.
It was a fiasco that elected officials in other cities and counties including members of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors could use as an example of how not to conduct public business.
Problems first surfaced Sept. 10 when Smith asked councilmen to raise city water rates nearly 30 percent over the next three years, including a 10 percent increase starting this month.
Some councilmen objected, saying residents staunchly opposed the increase. Councilmen said they didn't even know until the last minute that the increase was in Smith's budget.
Over the next few weeks, things grew more complicated and almost impossible to follow as the council met, approved a new budget and raised water rates 8 percent.
At one point, councilmen reduced the city tax rate only to reverse themselves days later at the behest of the mayor.
So where does that leave Meridian and taxpayers? Well, Meridian now has a budget, a tax rate, a water rate increase and residents who rightfully wonder if this is any way to run a city.
Lengthy session
Meridian isn't alone when it comes to bungled government work the state Legislature has been in special session since Sept. 5 to consider medical malpractice and tort reform bills.
While state lawmakers passed a bill early this month to ease medical malpractice problems, House and Senate members remain at odds over general changes to the civil justice system.
When the Legislature broke for the weekend Friday, one bill remained alive. The bill would protect banks from costly jury awards in cases where the institutions charged borrowers too much interest and fees for loans.
The bill is a far cry from the sweeping changes tort reform proponents hoped to win in a state whose high jury awards have gained it a national reputation as the lawsuit Mecca of the country.
Meanwhile, the cost of the session continues to mount.
As of Friday, Mississippi's lengthiest special legislative session has cost taxpayers $1 million. That figure will climb higher before the session ends.
Saving lives
The director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency repeated claims last week made by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove when he nixed a hurricane evacuation plan to aid Louisiana and Mississippi residents.
Robert Latham Jr. said his and other state agencies agree Mississippi has limited resources to deal with a plan allowing northbound traffic only on all Interstate 59 lanes north of the Louisiana state line.
State leaders refuse to admit that Mississippi cities and counties along I-59 have adequate manpower to ensure that northbound traffic flows smoothly on all northbound and southbound interstate lanes.
The bottom line is simple: Mississippi should be more than willing to do what it takes to save thousands of South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana residents from a killer hurricane.
If that means using all I-59 lanes for northbound traffic, then so be it. Besides, who in their right mind would travel south on the interstate straight into the path of a major hurricane?