Past finances haunt sports complex

 An EDITORIAL

Recently the City of Grenada, the Grenada Tourism Commission, and the Grenada Economic Development District held a public forum to inform and discuss a proposed sports complex along with the tourism tax increase necessary to construct the project.

The presentation was well done, and we have little doubt that the project would be welcomed with open arms were it not for the elephants in the room.

The “elephants in the room,” of course, are the Grenada mayor/city council’s past handling of the original tourism tax, UDAG funds, delinquent state audits, and a general fund over $2.6 million in the red (page 17, 2016 audit).

City Manager Trey Baker is quick to point out that since his hiring two years ago, the city has been much more fiscally disciplined. He is correct. He brought the city up to date on state required audits; completing three in one year.

Under his tutelage the mayor and council have behaved much more responsibly than in the past. For instance, the original 1992 tourism law required a separate dedicated bank account. According to the 2016 audit – 24 years later — that account still did not exist. Baker says he has taken care that, and that there is a now dedicated tourism account separate from the General Fund.

According to the state treasurer, that account, had it been set up from the beginning, would have over $5 million in it today. We have been told that the money went to finance the failing Dogwoods golf Course, which opened in 2006. Again, this happened prior to Baker’s arrival, and we understand Baker has been working hard to sign up a third party operator to relieve the city of some of the golf course burden.

Part of the original financing package of the paper mill was a federal UDAG grant (Urban Development Action Grant). As the paper mill paid the loan back to the city, it was to become a revolving industrial recruitment tool of $5 to $7 million.

Somewhere along the line this money was apparently absorbed into the city’s General Fund. This, too, was before the current city manager took office.

In 2015, the mayor/council had to obtain a “tax anticipation loan” against future sales tax collections in order to pay bills and make payroll. One City Hall watcher described this procedure as government’s equivalent to a “payday check advance.” This also happened before Baker’s arrival.

No doubt this newspaper will be criticized by city hall and others for bringing up past history. We wish we did not feel it necessary, but the problem is the mayor/council’s lack of business acumen is still in the memories of many of those who will have to vote on the tax increase, and we feel facing this history is more constructive to the proposed project that ignoring it.

If the only thing on the ballot were truly the sports complex and tax increase, we feel it would muster the necessary 60% voter approval, but the mayor/council’s past fiscal irresponsibility’s will also be in the minds of many voters.

The mayor/council has a history firing city managers. One city employee has been “acting” city manager three times.

One city hall insider tells us there is already some tension between one or two councilmen and the city manager due to his strong leadership, but that the council is reluctant to buck him due to Baker’s close relationship U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson.

Ironically, it may be that same relationship that could remove Baker from the local scene. He may run for Thompson’s seat when the 24-year veteran Congressman retires.

What does this have to do with the sports complex? We need Baker to see it through.

  • If the University of Southern Mississippi feasibility study produces an acceptable profit and loss scenario with a strong business plan;
  • If the city’s bonding limit can handle the project;
  • If the tax increase can pay the bond principle, bond interest, and the project’s operating budget without dipping into the General Fund; and
  • If the mayor/council and the city manager can agree on an additional five-year employment contract … </bullets>

If the four items bulleted above can be accomplished, we believe the project should be approved by voters.