Residents will see a 4 percent hike in their water and sewer bills starting in October, but the property-tax rate will remain the same as the city continues a trend of modest growth in revenue and spending.
The City Council adopted the budget of Mayor Billy Hewes’ administration Tuesday, adding $60,000 for a fourth ditch cleaner because of flooding from heavy rainfall. Councilman R.Lee Flowers said residents have been “blowing up his phone” with complaints about overgrown ditches, and Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines demanded the extra position, saying grass was taller than a stop sign in one ditch she looked at Tuesday.
The council approved a budget that includes general-fund spending of $58.3 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, compared with $60.1 million for the current year.
Public Works Director Wayne Miller said the addition of a ditch cleaner or grass cutter should improve service. The city cleans major ditches once a year, midsize ditches every three years and neighborhood ditches only every six years, he confirmed. However, public works will clean ditches when residents call the city’s 311 number for service. There is a waiting list and impediments such as fencing can prevent crews from accessing some ditches, he said.
The budget also calls for two new positions in the Leisure Services Department. These would be a marketing coordinator with a salary and benefits of $77,000 and a holiday-event coordinator whose salary and benefits would total $39,993.
Leisure Services Director David D’Aquilla wants to hire the marketing coordinator for the Gulfport Sportsplex, which is adding baseball and soccer fields. The sportsplex comes up just short of breaking even, D’Aquilla said, when money is counted that sportsplex visitors spend in the community.
D’Aquilla believes a marketing coordinator would increase sportsplex revenue by working to land more national and regional sports tournaments and increase sponsorships for the fields. The sportsplex hosts about 40 events and 70,000 visitors a year, he said. National events include one or two World Series tournaments each year.
“Sports tourism is a billion-dollar-a-year industry and we’re tapping into what we can tap into with the people we have,” D’Aquilla said. “But I need someone out there whose focus is 40 hours a week.”
D’Aquilla said he is awaiting council approval to advertise the job.
He also hopes to hire a holiday-event coordinator for the annual Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival and the Halloween light show that will debut in October at the sportsplex.
The winter festival, the largest electronic Christmas light display in South Mississippi, runs from Nov. 25 through New Year’s. It features rides, entertainment, food vendors and visits with Santa. D’Aquilla said five staff members spend 15 percent or more of their time working on festival logistics at various times of the year.
To fund its budget, the city relies primarily on property and sales taxes. Property taxes are expected to show an increase because values are generally higher, according to the proposed budget. Sales taxes moved up a notch, then back down, from 2011 through 2015.
For 2016, sales-tax collections are expected to increase by 4 percent. The administration projects a 3 percent sales-tax increase for 2017.