Growing Pains

DERON TALLEY, EDITOR @DeRonTalley

The back and forth battle at Gonzales’ City Hall that has prevented the city to institute a budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year is being described in two words: growing pains.

Gonzales City Council and Mayor Pro-Tem Terance Irvin said he knew these times were coming for the city of Gonzales, but the city must continue to press forward through them.

“I knew because of the investments made in the infrastructure we were going to have some growing pains,” Irvin said in an interview with the Weekly Citizen, a 14-year member of the council. “When you lay down a strong foundation, it invites economic development. You see the head-knocking, and name-calling and discussions going back and forth in the differences in ideologies, all that is to me is growing pains and I think it’s a good thing because I foreseen this coming sooner or later and I’m excited about it.”

In the July 7,City Council meeting, Mayor Barney Arceneaux attempted to pass the 2014-2015 budget for the second time for the city. But before a final vote, Irvin and councilman Gary Lacombe needed to make amendments one last time, which pushed the final vote again to approve back another to weeks, and set for July 28.

With his experience, Irvin said he’s able to have some intelligent discussion about the City of Gonzales’ past and its future.

“If you know your history, you’ll have a clear understanding of where you’re going,” Irvin said.

Budget woes

When Irvin first was first elected, Gonzales had about $16 million in its fund balance and over the years it grew to approximately $30 million. However during the last five years, the city spent about $20 million of the $30 million, this calling for some adjustments.

At the end of 2013, the council, led by Lacombe asked the auditor to affirm if “tightening” back the budget was the right thing, and the auditor said yes it was the right thing.

“That was an affirmation from what we’re trying to do from a Fiscal standpoint,” Lacombe said.

This past year, Lacombe and Irvin made similar requests to all of the departments to try and tighten things up to turn the fund balance around because it positions us to invest in infrastructure and the growing pains, Lacombe said.

“This past council meeting (July 7) we approved, unanimously, bonding $17 million over the next 20 years to do some identified work in our wastewater system across the city,” Lacombe said, in an interview with the Weekly Citizen. “We’re able to do that because that note is going to be between $700,000 to $900,000 a year. Because of tightening the belt we’re able to do that and keep moving forward.”

At the last council meeting, Irvin and Lacombe proposed amendments to once again reduce funding to the Police Department and the Ascension Economic Development Corporation (AEDC).

Lacombe offered an amendment to that would reduce the Police Department by approximately $110,000, instead of the $150,000 proposed in previous months.

The amendment would mean $327,555 for the Police Department rather than the $437,261 originally budgeted. Lacombe calculated the new reduced figure, he said, from the average of the last five years of Police Department funding, but in five years the department would be able to replace every one of its assets at that number.

Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson said he could “appreciate that formula,” but it “doesn’t work that way in law enforcement.”

“This is something we need and I think the city can afford it and I’m asking you to give my guys the tools to do their job,” Jackson said in the meeting.

However, Lacombe’s proposal passed in a 3-2 vote with Irvin and councilman Tim Vessel supporting.

As far as the AEDC, Irvin proposed an amount of $50,000, reducing it from the $100,000 it got in 2013.

Mike Eades, CEO of AEDC, explained at the meeting in response to Irvin’s new proposal that the city’s portion of funding for the AEDC helps provide for salaries, health care insurance and building rental for its staff of three.

Its other funding, from Ascension Parish government, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Industrial Development Board of Ascension Parish, allows AEDC to support local business and bring new business to the parish and its towns, Eades said.

“If you reduce that pot, it will be very difficult for us to be proactive,” Eades said to the City Council. “The model we use (for funding) is the common model in the U.S. for economic development organizations.”

After the meeting, Irvin said wouldn’t say the AEDC isn’t deserving of what it got last year, it’s just a decision the city needs to make across the board for all its departments to level off spending.

“Not having the $30 million fund balance that we’ve had over the years to make the investments, we’re not able to do that anymore,” Irvin said. “We’re asking them to join with us and reduce the spending to provide the service they are providing and work with us in moving forward.”

“I applaud the AEDC for their services and we will continue to support them, and we didn’t reduce all of their money,” Irvin said. “That tells you we support the organization. I think they’ll continue doing a great job for the parish, and later on maybe we can increase that but I want to encourage them to seek other funding sources too.”

After the meeting, Lacombe explained the council is not “cutting” anything. He said the budget is a request every year, and it assesses what is the level of appetite of spending that you want to go.

“We asked the departments to tighten their belts. Nowhere did any department get completely stripped of funding. We’ve asked them to rationalize where they are spending the money,” Lacombe said.

“That’s different from a cut,” Lacombe said. “A cut is if it was already set and now we’re dialing back. This is not what it was, it was a proposal.”

“We’re trying to find ways of how can we be strategic in leveling off spending, giving them what they want just over a period of time,” Lacombe said. “We’re trying to position ourselves for other needs. All of those little pieces add up to more goods and services and quality of life for all the people of the city.”

After the meeting Mayor Arceneaux said getting the budget approved is like a game of “tug-of-war” but not one that “I enjoy because who does it affect, our citizens and our employees.”

Interstate 10 service road

In April Lacombe, proposed an $800,000 item in the original budget to fund a study for an Interstate 10 Service road that would run between Highway 30 and Highway 44.

In the July 7 meeting, Lacombe didn’t ask to put it back in the budget and afterwards said it was because he respects the fact that Mayor Arceneaux doesn’t want it right now.

“The service road is a five-year, six-year project but we need to start somewhere,” Lacombe said. “Let’s have the discussion to try and look at what this place looks like in five years.”

Lacombe said there should be a sense of urgency about doing some things now to position the city for “success down the road.”

“What drives it for me is the students in the eighth grade at the middle school right now,” Lacombe said. “If we start it right now we wouldn’t be finished until they are graduated from high school, hopefully with some kind of industrial certification or if they want to go to college, but they are ready to go to work, and we have some places for them to move a little better. Those are the people we are going to impact.”

After the meeting, Mayor Arceneaux added it was the first time he heard of the service road study not being put on the budget, but added he was “very pleased with that.”

However, after the meeting both Irvin and Lacombe said the service road study isn’t off the table, only off the budget for now.

“This is what government about,” Lacombe said. “Even though we don’t agree on things it gives us a chance to sit down and dial up some ideas and discuss the issues and continue to work something that everybody gets pretty comfortable with.”

Irvin said it’s too important for the future of the city of Gonzales, so “we’re going to continue discussing it.”

Irvin added, “The past administration and council have really laid some really good foundation for some really good investments to be made for the future of Gonzales. I saw what we were a part of and where it has led us to today and it’s beyond our imagination what the city’s potential is. Now all we have to do is get in the driver seat and drive forward, collectively.”