[StBernard] St. Bernard residents facing higher rates as parish government addresses budget shortfall

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Aug 7 21:52:45 EDT 2012

St. Bernard residents facing higher rates as parish government addresses
budget shortfall

Published: Tuesday, August 07, 2012, 3:44 PM Updated: Tuesday, August
07, 2012, 6:03 PM

By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, The Times-Picayune

The St. Bernard Parish Council on Tuesday introduced an ordinance that, if
passed at its August 21 meeting, would add $27.51 to residents' monthly
water and sewer bills and could force the layoff of 92 parish employees. But
council members, who are grappling with a deep budget shortfall, were quick
to note that the proposed ordiance is merely a working document that could
be tweaked before it is enacted.

About 95 employees already have resigned, retired or were fired earlier this
year. The parish currently has about 460 employees on payroll.

While parish residents largely have berated the idea of the monthly fee
increase in online posts and email chains, hardly anyone in the audience
spoke on the matter at the sparsely attended 11 a.m. Tuesday council
meeting. A public hearing on the proposed fees and layoffs is scheduled for
the 7 p.m. August 21 council meeting.

"This council, this administration has been working really hard. We will not
be taking this matter lightly," Councilman Richie Lewis, chair of the
three-person Parish Council Executive Finance Committee, told the public.
"We are talking about families and livelihoods and jobs and this is a very
serious decision."

Councilman Casey Hunnicutt, also on the finance committee, explained that
the current ordinance is just an initial step.

"This item being introduced today could change drastically. A lot can change
between now and two Tuesdays from now," Hunnicutt said, referring to the
next council meeting. "Just keep that in mind, that we are working toward a
goal and we are taking everything into consideration and that the
introduction here is not the final product."

Parish Council President Guy McInnis, the other finance committee member,
echoed Hunnicutt's sentiments.

"This is a baseline," McInnis said. "We have a working document that I hope
between now and Monday we will sort through and that we come out of that
executive finance committee with a clear path of where we can go with this

On Monday, the finance committee is expected to meet to further hash out
potential cost saving measures with the goal of finding ways to reduce the
fee and the amount of layoffs required. McInnis will hold a town hall
meeting in council chambers at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, August 15, to hear
from residents and explain the parish's current financial predicament.

McInnis has said he would favor placing the matter of a $27 fee up to a vote
of the people in December.

The parish administration proposed three options to the Parish Council. The
administration stated that each option would allow the parish a balanced
budget despite a projected $2.3 million deficit for the remainder of the
year and a $10.2 million deficit for next year.

The administration projects that without new fees, it would have to layoff
an additional 174 parish employee on top of the 94 employees who already
have resigned, retired or were fired earlier this year. That would bring the
parish employee count down to about 285.

The parish population is about 40 percent less than before Hurricane Katrina
-- about 40,000 residents today compared to 67,000 before the storm.
Currently, the parish's employee count is only 13 percent smaller than
before the 2005 storm.

Cutting the staff by 174 employees would bring the parish staff to 46
percent below it was before Katrina.

In order for no layoffs to occur, the administration said it would have to
levy a $55.03 monthly fee to parish households. The Parish Council on
Tuesday tabled that $55 option, along with the option to impose no fees and
layoff 174 parish employees.

In addition to the $27 fee, the recently introduced option involves cutting
spending through layoffs in the seven departments. The 92 layoffs would save
the parish about $1.5 million for the remainder of the year, or about $4.5
million annually.

All told, including the added monthly fees, the $27 fee and 92 layoff option
would generate about $3.2 million by the end of this year, or about $9.6
million annually.

The previous St. Bernard Parish administration had predicted $21 million
from 2012 sale tax revenue. But after realizing that sales tax revenue had
dipped about $5 million to $6 million in recent months, the current
administration that took office in January now anticipates coming up $10.2
million short of budget projections next year and is quickly scrambling to
come up with additional revenue and cost-saving measures.

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