Editorials

We hope Pascagoula officials have learned a lesson. It’s OK to trust, but verify, too

Pascagoula not so long ago approved a tax that would add 2 percent to restaurant bills to support city recreation, like this park along the city’s waterfront. Now, the city is talking about selling some of its parks.
Pascagoula not so long ago approved a tax that would add 2 percent to restaurant bills to support city recreation, like this park along the city’s waterfront. Now, the city is talking about selling some of its parks.

Pascagoula reminds us of that mythical fellow who can’t imagine he’s broke because he still has checks in his checkbooks.

We don’t know how the city got in this predicament, but city officials last month found through an outside audit that it is broke. To be precise, it will have $14 million less than it had budgeted.

The city administration eagerly handed the ball to state officials and let them figure the mess out. And, they’re quick to assure the public that they aren’t to blame.

After handing documents over the State Auditor Shad White, the city issued a statement.

“We initiated this action as we continue to seek a complete understanding of the severity of poor fiscal management practices in the past, and the extent to which any employees or officials were responsible or had knowledge of the financial mismanagement at the city,” said Mayor Dane Maxwell. “It must be reiterated that while we initiated these external reviews by state authorities, this administration is not involved in that process. We discovered this problem. We sought the assistance of a forensic auditor. We revealed the issue in a transparent manner and at a public forum, and we now leave it to the experts to make their determinations.”

We understand most of the city’s elected officials were new to city government when they took office last summer. But they were elected to be good stewards of taxpayer money. Instead, it seems for months, they just took for granted the numbers passed along by the previous administration.

And, it suspected something was wrong in January when it replaced the city comptroller, and yet it proceeded along as if everything was fine until the audit showed that everything was about $14 million from being fine.

What’s most troubling is the city seems intrigued by the idea of selling off public parks to help make up the deficit. We think that’s a terrible idea.

Parks are part of the city’s identity. They impress those moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and looking at all its very competitive cities. The city with the fewest parks would be at a disadvantage.

The city most likely will raise taxes and officials will say how painful it is. But, taxes are what pay for the services residents enjoy: the streets, police and fire protection, and, yes, parks and recreation. Keeping taxes low is wonderful unless they are kept so low the city can’t pay its bills.

So, in the end taxes weren’t low, they were just being put off by artificially inflating the budget with money from the utility fund and windfalls such as BP money.

Incidentally, the first red flag would be when money is being shifted from fund to fund to make ends meet. Like the mythical man who, finally out of checks, starts paying one credit card bill with another credit card.

About the best the taxpayers can hope for is the city does not make any rash decisions on parks and other services and it transparently and earnestly does what it can to find out what went wrong and develop safeguards against a repeat performance.

That isn’t too much to ask.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.
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