Proposed budget to reduce spending $800,000

By Jim Butler

jimenews@bellsouth.net

The administration is close to the $700,000 to $800,000 in cuts it thinks are necessary for the city’s 2008-09 fiscal year.

Mayor Bob Morris said the reductions he and City Clerk Earlene LeJeune have made are from that portion of the budget considered unfixed. There are no salary or position cuts envisioned, he said.

The catalyst for the administration’s proposed spending cuts is a precipitous drop in revenues in the current fiscal year.

Declines in sales tax revenue, occupational license fees, liquor license fees, and building permits, as well as a drop in natural gas sales, account for most of the drop.

LeJeune and Morris estimate the shortfall in revenue could be as much as $700,000 by fiscal year’s end.

Some City Council members aren’t sure the budget situation is quite the looming crisis that Morris does, but for now the projections are in the administration’s lap.

Last week, the mayor issued a memo of “New Budget Directives” that advises department heads and employees not to spend any money for non-emergency or non-essential expenses without prior approval.

Fontenot asks him to clarify what he means by one or the other.

“I honestly believe that your version may be different than mine. A response within the next 24 hours is expected,” she said.

The alderwoman, often at odds with Morris, also questions whether current and planned spending for wastewater plan repairs is an “emergency.”

“My suggestion to you is that you abide by your own “New Budget Directives.”

Morris had no comment, other than to say he felt the wastewater work essential.

The administration considers about $6.6 million of the city’s $14 million budget to be fixed expense - such things as payroll, insurance of all kinds, retirement, workers compensation, utilities, fuel, bond payments (sewer, rec), loan payment on f re trucks.

The remaining $7.4 (about 53 percent of the budget) is where the reductions are proposed, though Morris declines to enumerate them prior to sending a budget plan to the council.

He did say the only Capital Outlay items currently envisioned are the bi-annual street overlay program and repairs in the wastewater system.

The road program allocation is set at $500,000.

That will be a carry-over fund from the $500,000 set aside in the current year.

Morris said no FY 2009 revenue will be earmarked for street work.

The city hopes for street work lagniappe in the form of a Community Development Block Grant which would finance work on a number of streets, most of them in Ward 4.

The wastewater line item will be between $300,000 and $400,000.

LeJeune said she has received nothing back from council members or department heads in response to her request for input in the process.

Morris said the only requests he has received are from Alderwomen Chawana Fontenot and Marguerite Fruge-Simpson.

Fontenot asked that $12,000 be allocated toward an economic development director’s post.

Such a post was recommended last month in a committee’s report to the council.

Fruge-Simpson wants $50,000 for basketball courts at the Southeast Pavilion as a line item in the budget.

Alderman Dale Soileau’s primary concern is personnel.

“I’d like to continue the increases we began this year in streets, wastewater, and police support personnel,” he said.

“And we need more people available and working on the city’s needs, such as equipment operators,” he said.

“A priority is keeping the people we have and enticing others to come here with competitive wage and benefit packages,” Soileau added.

New spending doesn’t seem to fit what the administration has in mind.

Morris said the Police Department is a pivotal piece in the budget puzzle.

“With a $2.1 million budget, the police department is a big factor in budget considerations,” Morris said.

Police Chief Gary Fontenot said he understands financial concerns and said, “I’ll do everything in my power to continue to provide our citizens the protection and service they expect.”

He said Morris had suggested cutting the department’s normal vehicle rotation from four cars (one each quarter) to one car next year.

Fully outfitted, a unit, through state contract, costs about $25,000.

“We’ve got 10 units that are of questionable value for law enforcement. He wants us to replace just one instead of four of them,” Chief Fontenot said.

He said he is conducting a study of off-duty use of the department vehicles to see how much the policy of providing officers round-the-clock vehicles actually costs.

The chief’s other concerns are in finding and keeping officers - and the salary and benefits plan necessary to make that happen.

Regarding the overall budget, the mayor said, “We don’t wish to cut salaries or positions, and we realize the minimum wage increases in July and are including that factor.”

According to city records, 12 employees are currently paid less than the $6.55 hourly minimum wage taking effect in July.

“We are looking at essential spending. Anything I consider non-essential is being cut 10 percent across the board,” the mayor said.

Councilman Jack Burson, who clashed with Morris last year over what he considered an unrealistic budget, said he is not working on a spending plan at this point.

“I prefer to let that take its course in the hope that the administration will develop a plan that I and others can support,” he said, adding that, “I generally agree with and applaud the mayor’s fiscal initiatives.”

“My first priority is providing the basis governmental infrastructure. The health and welfare of the general public should be the first priority,” he said.

Last summer, Burson led the way in forcing a budget compromise between the council and the mayor.

As it turned out, the administration’s estimates were closer to actuality, though the targets are moving ones.

For instance, since early this month, when the budget preparation began, the price of gasoline and diesel fuel has jumped several times, with gasoline now 40 cents a gallon higher than early April.

With average consumption of about 7,000 gallons a month, the city’s bill has increased $2,800 in the month.

Obviously, where to peg the average gasoline price for the next 12 months is an important budget consideration.

LeJeune said the budget being created does include some normal growth in some revenue categories, but includes no new revenue streams.

The City Council in January authorized a study and comparison of wastewater rates based on water consumption rather than numbers of toilets in residences and flat rates in many businesses and public facilities.

Numbers provided by Louisiana Water Co. showed using a rate structure such as the one in Crowley would add about $30,000 a month to total wastewater income.

Neither the mayor or the council has shown any inclination to consider a change.

Morris said he had turned the matter over to Fontenot, who said earlier that she has received no inkling of council interest in a change.

The mayor’s attention has been on reducing spending, not increasing revenue.

Through the first eight months of the current fiscal year, the city had spent about $1.2 million less than in the same period last year.

Those cuts have enabled the city to be about three quarters of a million dollars in the black through eight months operating despite the drop in revenues.

Morris considers the next round of proposed cuts workable.

“If run like a private business, I honestly think we could cut expenses another 20 percent and absolutely no services would suffer,” Morris said.

“But a private business does not have to contend with political heat from running in such an efficient manner,” he added.

Asked if government can really be run like a private business, Morris said, “Why not? In my opinion, private business can do just about anything better than government.”

Morris said the administration hopes to have a budget document in the City Council’s hands at its May meeting.

At that meeting the budget ordinance will be introduced and a public hearing set for the June 10 council meeting date.

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