Hernando aldermen voted Thursday in a recessed board meeting to increase the city property tax rate by 5.8 mills, the first major increase in the city's ad valorem tax rate in decades.
The board's vote was unanimous, with the exception of Ward Four Alderman Mike McLendon, who was absent for the vote to raise taxes but was present to vote for the budget, which was approved unanimously.
A second ambulance for the city, in addition to pay hikes for fire and police, was approved along with $300,000 more over last year's budget for paving and repair of city streets.
Additionally, $7,400 was added to the final budget for costs of adding sprinklers to the Gale Center.
One mill is equivalent to approximately $144,000.
"We've done our homework," said Hernando Mayor Tom Ferguson. "I feel confident that we have it right. The ones getting substantial raises are fire and police."
Ferguson said the second ambulance is desperately needed and pay raises for police will hopefully stem the losses of police officers leaving for higher pay in surrounding areas.
At issue is whether to press the new ambulance into action as soon as possible or wait until tax revenue comes in to help pay for it — usually in January of February.
The decision was made to purchase the ambulance as soon as possible. Emergency personnel could be trained within a relatively short amount of time, according to EMS Supervisor Joanna Herring.
Ward 3 Alderman Gary Higdon had a back-and-forth exchange with Fire Chief Hubert Jones about the condition and viability of the back-up ambulance and another which is basically used on a limited basis due to high mileage.
The back-up ambulances will have to be used until the new 2018 model arrives. A 2004 and 2009 model chassis are in service now.
Additionally, city employees received what amounts to a three-percent raise.
Major department heads, such as police and fire, received raises but the city's Parks and Recreation Director DeWayne Williams did not receive the 32-percent raise for himself and $16-an-hour salary that he had proposed for program director Dolly Brechin.
Ferguson said he would review Williams' salary and that of Brechin after a 90-day period and develop a list of goals and objectives for that department.
Williams had argued the City of Hernando's Parks Department had grown to the point it was offering more programs than larger cities like Southaven or Olive Branch, but his salary was vastly different than those department heads.
"The metric is off compared to other departments," Williams said. "That's all I'm saying. People who have been here for years are grossly underpaid. I've been here for 12 years. I'm college educated and have all of the work behind me. We're growing. I appreciate the ambulance. They have helped transport my son three or more times this year. I'm not saying anything against the ambulance. We're talking about people who are trying to take care of families. The staff is doing good work."
Williams said the city's soccer and baseball programs were growing along with more than 30 different programs, all totaled. More than 5,700 people participated in the city's parks program this past year, a third of the city's population.
Williams acknowledged Hernando's tax base was different. Williams also argued he had presented a balanced budget.
With benefits, Williams is paid $72,374 a year, or a salary of $50,878.
Some aldermen complained that Williams had reduced money allotted for maintenance to be able to fund pay raises for him and Brechin. Williams said no money was shifted from maintenance to make that happen.
"I think all departments need to be looked at," Ward 2 Alderman Andrew Miller said.
"I guess it goes down to what is a necessity of life and what is not," McLendon said during the discussion.
Police and fire salaries will be funded at 100 percent levels immediately to stop the loss of employees from going elsewhere.
"I've been told by the chief in Southaven that he is looking at six of my people," Jones said.
Jones said dating from the year 2005, the Hernando Fire Deaprtment/EMS has lost 42 people.
"We've lost three this year," Jones said.
"I want you to have the money but I am responsible to the citizens of Hernando to do this thing right," Higdon said. "I've been for it (ambulance) and (six new personnel) all along and fire and police (salaries). I know that the only way to keep good people is to pay them a competitive wage."
Higdon wants to get the new ambulance on the streets as soon as possible.
"I'm definitely not delaying the second ambulance," Higdon said. "That's the reason they (taxpayers) did not object to the tax increase we just approved."
Hernando Police Chief Scott Worsham said he was approached by an officer with five family members who cannot earn a living wage as a Hernando police officer.
"We're not competitive," Worsham said. "I know the city wants to be the best. I think we've punted it (tax increase) down the road for so long. We owe it (salary adjustment) to the men and women who protect us. All other agencies around here (county) are adding more officers."
Also Thursday, Ferguson announced that Horn Lake Planning Director Keith Briley had been hired as the city's new planning chief.
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.