LAFAYETTE — The majority of the City-Parish Council offered no resistance Thursday to City-Parish President Joey Durel’s plan to use money from Lafayette’s traffic-camera enforcement program to pay for operating expenses in the proposed budget for 2011-12.
The enforcement program began in 2007, and use of traffic fines in the past has been limited to projects related to traffic safety rather than recurring operating expenses.
The local law that set up the program gives city-parish government much leeway in spending the money, but Durel has acknowledged that the initial hope was that the enforcement revenue would be used for traffic safety projects, not plugging holes in the budget.
“We had to do something a little uncomfortable this year,” Durel told the council during a budget hearing Thursday.
Durel said he saw few alternatives when facing a tight budget marked by projections of flat tax collections and dramatically rising costs for employee retirement and health care.
“But I don’t think it’s what any of us would frankly want that money used for,” he said.
The local law that set up the enforcement program states that fines left over after covering its operating costs be used for expenses related to such things as driver education programs, intersection improvements and police officers working traffic details.
But the law also states that the use of the money is not restricted to any of those safety-related expenses.
Durel proposed using about $1.3 million in traffic-camera money for operating expenses in the Traffic and Transportation Department, such as salaries, overtime, health benefits and retirement.
The only councilman to raise an issue with spending the traffic-camera money on recurring operating expenses was William Theriot, who said there needs to be more discussion on the issue.
Councilman Jay Castille, while not objecting to spending the money on operating expenses, proposed a budget amendment to use the traffic-camera money to fund the Police Department’s traffic enforcement division rather than the Traffic and Transportation Department.
His plan, which needs approval of the full council, is to then take the tax revenues that would have funded the Police Department division and transfer that money to the traffic department.
The accounting shift would have no net effect on the budget but it would mean that the traffic-camera funds would go to police officers working traffic details, which is one of the specific authorized uses in the local law that created the traffic-camera enforcement program.
Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux said he would like to see some of the traffic-camera money be used for normal crime patrols rather than limiting it to traffic safety work.
Boudreaux has pushed in the past to use the traffic-camera money for special crime details, but the Durel administration has opposed the move, arguing that use of the money should have some link to traffic safety.
“These monies were untouchable, and now, obviously, they are touchable,” Boudreaux said.
Boudreaux made no formal proposal for the traffic-camera money, but the window remains open until the council makes a final vote on the budget later this year.
Durel said that he does not plan to continue tapping the traffic-camera fund to cover recurring operating expenses in future budget years.
It’s unlikely that the practice could continue indefinitely because revenue from fines has been going down.
The program brought in $1.7 million in 2009, but revenues fell to $1.4 million in 2010.
The estimate for this year is $1.2 million, according to projections from city-parish government.
The traffic-camera enforcement program does have savings banked from prior years and is projected to end next year with a balance of $2.4 million.
Budget hearings for other city-parish departments continue next week.
A hearing for citizen input is scheduled for Aug. 25.
The 2011-2012 budget year begins Nov. 1.