St. John council OKs 2005 budget

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 4, 2005


Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – Maintaining pay raises for parish employees and free costs for dependent healthcare for their families, the St. John the Baptist Parish Council voted Tuesday to adopt Parish President Nickie Monica’s 2005 amended budget.

Following two months of heated debates and immense political grandstanding, the move was not backed by an ordinance, which almost guarantees a full year of policy clatter will follow.

Approving a $41.7 million budget, the council agreed they would not reduce personnel at this time, would institute a hiring freeze, would begin adjusting water and sewer rates and would borrow from the general fund.

The council also said they will reduce contracts for grass cutting and janitorial services by 30 percent, will eliminate funding outside entities such as drug court and will drop the recreation department from the general fund.

These and other moves will cut last years $43.2 million operating budget down by $1.5 million.

Last week, Monica drafted a letter to Council Chairman Joel McTopy, telling him the parish received new ad valorem tax estimates based upon reassessed property values.

Monica said the parish was able to budget an additional $940,000 in ad valorem tax revenue in various budgets. The parish was also able to divide an additional $400,000 in sales tax revenue between the sales tax district, public works and economic development budgets.

The amended 2005 total budget has projected revenues equaling $42.6 million compared to $42.2 million in 2004. More than 53 percent of the parish’s revenues are derived from taxes, with sales taxes being the largest resource pool.

In 2004 parish salaries, insurances and retirement expenditures rose $3 million. Rather than cut the rising costs, the council voted Tuesday night to pull money out of the general fund to cover the increasing expenditures.

This means parish employees will – for now – continue to receive yearly raises equating to 5 percent and will continue to receive 100 percent of the costs for health insurance for themselves and for their families.

The budget originally asked that employees pay 25 percent of the costs for health insurance for their dependents and also asked that employee raises be reduced, in some instances, from 3 percent to 1 percent.

Slashing the council and the administration with brutal, often barbed blows, Councilman Dale Wolfe said, “I am a Louisiana cowboy. Some people could care less about the employees. Administration would not feel it (the financial changes), The low people on the totem pole will feel it.”

Wolfe expounded that he would agree with new employees paying for dependent insurance coverage but that he wanted to keep premiums free to existing parish workers.

Councilman Ronnie Smith said he submitted the charges for dependent insurance coverage because the most that any employee would pay would be $150 per month. Smith said his decisions were responsible ones.

“One hundred percent is not paid anywhere else in Louisiana. My family is on this insurance and I will be counted also,” said Smith.

Councilman Sean Roussel told the council he agreed with Smith. He said the rate increases were a vital part of conducting business.

“Everyone’s health benefits have gone up. This is a good package. It is responsible when compared with packages in other parishes,” said Roussel.

Looking perplexed, Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard told the council she did not know or understand what certain charges in the budget were for. Rising from her chair, Hotard went from one council member to another, asking them to explain the budget to her.

Hotard flailed the budget in the air and laughingly said, “I see plenty of money in here.” Filing a council motion, she requested the budget include

employee pay raises and 100 percent health benefits to the families of parish workers.

Hotard said money could be siphoned from the already-strapped general fund to cover the budget expenditures.

Monica originally asked the council to approve spending $37.4 million for 2005 so the parish could increase its reserves and hold on to its bond rating.

Projected revenue would have allowed the parish to put aside $3 million. The revised budget only allowed the parish to reserve $1.2 million. Some of this money will now be tapped to pay for employee raises and healthcare.

At the end of the discussion, Smith and Roussel voted against the budget, citing they could not accept the budget with these changes.

Parish Finance Director Jeff Clement stood at the microphone to address the council. He explained that several operating budgets have cash flow problems and that expenditures would eventually need to be cut back to reverse this trend.

“You have selected a less aggressive 2005 budget that accomplishes this over a few years instead of over one year. The 2005 budget doesn’t cut back many services,” said Clement.

Clement told the council, “To repeat a quote made earlier by (Councilman Cleveland) Farlough, ‘Insanity is doing what you’ve always done and expecting a difference.'”