Jefferson Parish’s 2014 budget calls for few changes in operations

Jefferson Parish President John Young’s proposed spending plan for the coming year calls for few changes for parish operations while trimming back slightly on expenses.

The $555 million operating and capital budget proposal contains few alterations from this year’s budget, which itself was tailored to avoid new expenses or disruptions. Once again, the budget does not propose raises for parish workers, though it leaves open the possibility of pay bumps should the parish get good news in its efforts to have FEMA forgive tens of millions of dollars in disaster loans dating back to Hurricane Katrina.

The budget proposal is $7 million less than the one approved for this year, though Chief Operating Officer Chris Cox said there will be no cuts in services.

“We’re very fortunate in Jefferson Parish to remain financially healthy,” Cox said. “We’re committed to maintaining the excellent level of service we provide.”

Overall, Young’s proposal would spend about $419 million on operating expenses, $63 million on capital improvements such as road and drainage projects, and $23 million on federal grants and other money that the parish handles for other agencies. The rest of the money will go toward paying off bonds, loans and other debt.

The Parish Council is scheduled to begin discussing the budget on Wednesday, though its approval may be weeks away. Council members have traditionally spent several meetings discussing and debating the administration’s proposal before approving a final budget late in the year.

This year, the budget debate comes after two rounds of internal discussions. Administration officials held hearings with parish departments, to which council members were invited, before seeking feedback from the council and then holding a second round of meetings before deciding on the final proposal.

That process could smooth the way for the council’s consideration of the budget, Cox said.

Release of the proposal was delayed for several weeks so that it could incorporate the results of an Oct. 19 election that determined whether millages that fund sewerage and water services would be extended for 10 years. Those millages, which failed when they were first put to voters in May, were overwhelmingly approved the second time they appeared on the ballot.

In a letter sent to council members outlining the budget proposal, Young did raise several areas of concern about the coming year. Those include worry that some departments’ expenditures may be growing faster than revenues, as well as higher costs for capital improvements and a warning that revenue from the hotel occupancy tax could decline and must be carefully monitored.

The letter also notes that revenue from the Alario Center has fallen since it is no longer used by the New Orleans Pelicans as a practice facility. Young said the parish is looking at marketing options to increase the center’s use, but he warned that the parish may have to turn to the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which oversees the center, for help.

A more substantial uncertainty looms over the roughly $55 million the parish owes in FEMA loans. Parish officials have applied to have those loans forgiven, and that determination could be made by sometime next year, Finance Director Tim Palmatier said.

While the parish will not have to repay any of that money until FEMA makes that decision, the budget calls for leaving about $1.75 million in the general fund’s reserve to help defray that cost, Palmatier said. The parish has an additional $8.12 million from dedicated millages that could be uesd to pay off the FEMA loans.

Should FEMA end up forgiving the loans, the general fund money would be funneled back into the budget. Some would go toward increasing parish reserves while the rest would be used to provide pay increases for employees who receive positive evaluations, in a process similar to one used when raises were provided two years ago.

While this year’s proposal does little to change the status quo, Young said officials need to start planning for future years in which the parish will have to cover more costs due to state budget cuts.

“We must think ahead about what shortfalls will occur in the future,” Young said. “As the state continues to make its budget cuts, the burden continues to fall upon local governments to maintain the services the state once provided. The 2015 budget will face even tighter funding constraints while we continue to maintain the level of service and ‘quality of life’ our citizens deserve and expect. We must either ‘tighten our belts’ even more or find other sources of revenue.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 6 to note that, in addition to the $1.75 million in the general fund reserve, the parish has $8.12 million from dedicated millages set aside to help pay down FEMA loans.