Budget disputes between members of the Starkville Board of Aldermen came to a head Tuesday night when only three officials were initially present at the Board's scheduled meeting.
Despite a few unsure hours, Aldermen were eventually able to vote to approve the budget and the 1.5 mil increase for the city that accompanied it.
In the hours before the vote, Mayor Lynn Spruill was joined by Aldermen Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2, Hamp Beatty of Ward 5 and Jason Walker of Ward 4 at 5:30 p.m., the regularly scheduled meeting time for the Board.
Initially absent from the meeting were Aldermen David Little of Ward 3, Ben Carver of Ward 1, Henry Vaughn of Ward 7 and Vice Mayor Roy A.’ Perkins of Ward 6.
Their absences came during a meeting where the Board was scheduled to vote on the fiscal year 2019-2020 budget, a matter which was initially scheduled to be voted on earlier this month.
Disagreements over the proposed 1.5 mil increase in the city's millage rates prevented a vote from being held until Tuesday.
Because Little was delayed returning to Starkville from England Tuesday night, Carver opted to not attend the meeting.
"Out of respect to him [Little], and because I believe that this is the most important vote that we take each year, I will not be in attendance tonight," Carver said, less than an hour before the meeting was to begin.
Previously, Carver has been an outspoken critic of the proposed millage increase, which is intended to cover roughly $400,000 in operating costs, including personnel costs and equipment.
A loose agreement suggested by Carver had been unofficially accepted in past work sessions to reduce the millage increase to 0.64 mils, enough to fund the full staffing of the city's fire department and provide pay increases for city employees.
This increase would have totaled roughly $165,000.
In offering the compromise, Carver agreed to cast the necessary fourth vote for the tax increase, along with Walker, Sistrunk and Beatty, all of whom were present Tuesday night.
Little and Vaughn have previously said they would not support a tax increase in any amount. Perkins, while never having voiced his opinion on this specific proposal, has frequently criticized the manner in which the city conducts business, almost always voting against the city's billings in its claims dockets.
At 5:30 p.m., when the meeting was supposed to begin, Spruill announced she would wait 30 minutes for one more Alderman to arrive in order for the Board to have a quorum, a majority, necessary for the city to conduct business.
After apparently realizing the intention behind the Aldermen's absences, Spruill said acting in such a manner was "shameful."
"I believe we have what can only be called an opportunity for our Board members not to have a quorum, so we cannot conduct business," Spruill said. "And I find in my, however many years doing this, I've never seen this happen."
Spruill said approving the budget was incredibly important, noting that it was previously scheduled to be approved but was delayed because of disagreements among Aldermen.
Municipalities are required to approve balanced budgets under state law by the beginning of the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Failure to do so could leave a city unable to spend any money, including paying employees, until a balanced budget is approved.
"In order to do the city's business, which is what the elected representatives are here to do, it seems as though we will not be able to do that tonight," Spruill said.
Carver said he recognized the importance of the budget being approved but did not feel holding a vote without Little was in the best interest of the city.
"I believe it's imperative that we have a full board, and Alderman Little is a key vote in ensuring that we pass the most efficient and effective budget," Carver said. "We will meet in due time, and with a full board, we will make sure that all Wards are represented in the budget."
After 30 minutes of waiting, Spruill pushed the meeting's beginning back to 9 p.m. Tuesday night, hoping Little would be back in Starkville by then and a quorum could be reached.
During the recess, Sistrunk said she was shocked to see so many empty chairs at the beginning of the meeting.
"I have never seen anything like this," Sistrunk said.
Sistrunk, who, as budget chair for the Board, initially proposed the 1.5 mil increase, said she did not take the absences personally.
"I do think it is a disservice to their constituents," Sistrunk. "The worst thing that could possibly happen is if we do not get a budget approved by Oct. 1, we cannot spend money."
Shortly after 9 p.m., Little arrived at City Hall to meet the other Aldermen, establishing a quorum. Carver arrived shortly after. Vaughn and Perkins remained absent.
Little, having traveled all day, said he alerted the other members of the Board as soon as he knew he would be late, noting he was at the mercy of his flight. He also noted he was glad to vote and move past budget discussions.
"I'm glad to be here and glad to get this done," Little said.
Votes for the budget and millage increase fell 3-2, with Little and Carver opposing.
Spruill said she was "delighted" to walk away with the 1.5 mil increase, arguing the expenses that led to Sistrunk requesting the tax increase were vital to the city and not discretionary as other members of the Board had previously suggested.
"I have held all along that I believe everyone of those things listed were necessary," Spruill said. "To conduct our government in the best way we can, none of them were discretionary."
Carver said he wished his suggestion of 0.64 mils had gone through, arguing that the city did not need to raise taxes to afford many of the items listed on the wish list for the 1.5 mil increase.
Ultimately, Carver came to City Hall and accepted the majority decision.
"I tried to cut the millage increase in half, but was informed that was not accepted," Carver said. "So, I'll go with whatever the majority of the Board deems necessary."