Metro Council members have only begun to skim the surface of Mayor Kip Holden’s proposed $830 million budget, which he presented in a 502-page document at a special meeting Wednesday evening, but some have already identified departments and causes that might need more cash in the coming year.
The city-parish’s overall budget includes a 2.5% increase in revenues, which equates to an increase of roughly $26 million. But only $7.5 million of that is included in the general fund, which is more flexible for council members to reallocate.
“There’s a lot to take care of,” Councilwoman Tara Wicker, also this year’s Budget Hearing chairwoman, tells Daily Report this morning. Wicker says she hasn’t had time to review specific funding amounts, but that she wants to check in with certain programs to “make sure that there are adequate dollars available.” Those include the city’s summer youth development programs, infrastructure improvements and the BRAVE initiative expansion in the 70802 ZIP code.
In Holden’s proposed budget, $2.5 million of the $7.5 million in increased general fund revenue would go to public safety operations, including renovations to a Government Street fire station and funding for an additional police officer academy class.
Councilman John Delgado says there’s not enough money for additional police academies, though he acknowledges the need for them. Because of the number of police officers that are expected to retire, the two police academies scheduled to take place next year leave the city with just one more officer next year than this year.
“We’re doing two academies and that’s great, but we need five,” Delgado says.
But that’s expensive, he adds, estimating that each new officer costs the city $100,000 in what he calls “startup costs,” including equipment, training and pay during the training period.
Another roughly $2.5 million of the additional general fund dollars will go to salaries and benefits for city employees. Though Holden called this allotment a raise during his presentation Wednesday evening, Delgado says the amount is what city-parish employees are scheduled to see in merit and longevity pay increases—not supplemental to that—and it is therefore not a raise.
Delgado says he would have “serious misgivings” voting for a budget that doesn’t include an additional raise for city-parish employees. Wicker and council members Donna Collins-Lewis and Buddy Amoroso also say they want to see pay raises in the budget.
“There’s $20 million in new money. Raises would cost $3.6 million. I would suggest to you that there’s money somewhere in there,” Delgado says.
Nearly $2 million of the additional general fund money will go toward “other programs and activities,” including $400,000 for lawsuit settlement agreements and $110,000 for the Festival of Lights on North Boulevard.
Collins-Lewis says she also wants to see additional money for summer youth programs. She says she’d like to see the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority get the $3 million it has requested, but says it’s unlikely to get approved by the council because of the mayor’s staunch opposition, which he reiterated Wednesday.
Collins-Lewis says to find more money, the entire budget needs to be combed and department heads need to be questioned for clarity.
“Nobody is ever going to tell you that they have more than enough money in their budget, but it’s about looking for priorities, look at contracts and look at programs,” Collins-Lewis says.
Now that the budget is in the council’s hands, they will hold two budget hearings; one on Tuesday, Nov. 18, and another on Monday, Nov. 24, where they will hear from the public and department heads. Reallocating general fund dollars in the mayor’s proposed budget requires eight votes, a supermajority of council members. For that reason, Amoroso says, the mayor’s budget will likely only undergo small tweaks.
Amoroso adds he would like to see a $300,000 increase for the coroner’s office to fund sexual assault treatment programs. The coroner’s office will already see a $205,360 increase out of the $7.5 million in general fund dollars. —Kelly Connelly