Martinez offers slimmer budget

Aaron Looney

Parish President Tommy Martinez presented a proposed $92.4 million 2009 budget to the Parish Council Thursday that includes deferring new parish road projects in favor of working on state highways such as Hwy. 42 and Hwy. 73.

“I think it’s a good and solid budget,” Martinez said. “We’re in good shape financially, but we just don’t have a lot of wiggle room to play with.”

The proposed 2009 budget comes in $26 million less than the 2008 amended budget, a 21 percent decrease in spending Martinez credited to the current economic status of the country and the rising cost of doing business for parish government.

“Our costs are rising at a pretty good rate, faster than our sales tax revenues are increasing,” said Martinez, referring to tax collections that look to eclipse last year’s record totals. “We also have to service debts.”

Martinez said that dollars budgeted to capital projects decreased from $46 million to $33 million in the proposed 2009 budget. Those debts include unfunded mandates that have arisen in recent years, an $800,000 annual cost for the current 350-bed expansion of the parish jail near Donaldsonville, paying off $6.5 million in drainage bonds and completing outstanding road projects such as the 2001 parish road construction project, a $1.4 million annual incurrence that has yet to be completed.

The proposed 2009 budget also features a $58 million operating budget.

The proposal also features a decrease of $4.8 million, or 24 percent, in the general fund, Martinez said. The decreases include cutting $525,000 from the road and bridge maintenance fund, cuts of $482,000 in acquisition of equipment for East Ascension Gravity Drainage District No. 1.

Martinez said that there will be no new parish road projects in 2009, but that the parish would continue to work on outstanding projects from previous years. However, he said that the funding was being moved to work on state roads that serve as major arteries in the parish. Those plans include adding a center turning lane on Hwy. 73 and Hwy. 42, both in Prairieville.

The parish president said he is also cutting $300,000 from his executive department budget.

In presenting other points of the budget, Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant said that while the parish is cutting back on spending like many other entities, it is still proposing new initiatives.

“Times are tough on everyone, including the parish,” he said.

One issue Grant discussed was hiring fewer parish employees, but raising the salaries of the current positions. This includes raising the pay of entry-level parish employees from $7 to $10 per hour to stop the high turnover rate and “help recruit better employees.”

The plan also includes a 5 percent cost of living increase for all parish employees, detailed job descriptions and a career progression for every employee.

Grant also said that the proposed budget would call for the hiring temporary employees for 20 hours a week instead of using contract employees. Such a move would eliminate spending of up to $1.6 million on benefits.

Another area Grant said the parish could save under the proposed budget plan would be to lease necessary vehicles and equipment instead of buying them. The plan would create a $500,000 line item for leasing and possibly save the parish $1.5 million annually in purchases.

Grant also told the council that the parish will place a one-time capital outlay $750,000 into its recreation department budget to upgrade current park facilities.

The council will introduce the budget at its next meeting, then dissect it during an upcoming special Finance Committee meeting before bringing the proposed plan up for public hearing and subsequent vote at its Nov. 20 meeting in Gonzales. The budget must be adopted by the end of the calendar year, Martinez said.

In other matters, the council:

• Heard from Martinez that the parish planned to begin its second round of Hurricane Gustav debris pickup this week. Martinez said that a second round of debris pickup would also be necessary for unincorporated areas on the west bank and that a pickup round for removal of construction and demolition debris would be forthcoming.

• Honored the Firefighters of the Year from the respective departments across the parish.