City Hall is closing out the books on 2017 by spending its extra cash on public safety and on major repairs to the Raising Cane's River Center.
The East Baton Rouge Metro Council voted unanimously Wednesday during its final meeting of the year to dole out money to help the Baton Rouge Police Department purchase new vehicles; to help the Baton Rouge Fire Department build new stations; to repair damaged governmental buildings; and to rehabilitate the River Center.
In addition, Baton Rouge will spend the last of federal grant money as part of the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination anti-gang initiative to reimburse LSU for its research on the once-heralded program.
The $2 million appropriated for police vehicles is expected to purchase 70 to 80 new vehicles, depending on which type the Police Department chooses. Interim Police Chief Jonny Dunnam said the vehicles being replaced were purchased in 2009 or earlier and most have logged 150,000 miles or more.
"It's in the top two most dire needs for sure: officer pay and vehicles," Dunnam said after the vote.
Dunnam has estimated BRPD needs close to 150 vehicles to replace the worst-off ones in the fleet. Baton Rouge Police Lt. Robert McGarner said during his recent interview for the police chief position that the number of aging and broken down police vehicles is the top reason for low morale in the department.
Maintenance costs for the aging vehicles have also been soaring, Dunnam said. The money could be better used elsewhere with vehicles that are in better shape, he said.
The city-parish will also spend about $500,000 on new vehicles for the Fire Department as well as $500,000 on building the new, long-awaited Fire Station 20 in the Lee Drive/Burbank Drive corridor. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's headquarters will receive $500,000 in updates as well.
The $1 million for Raising Cane's River Center improvements is coming from state sales tax rebates dedicated to the arena. With the infusion of money from the city-parish as well as funds from a newly approved dedicated hotel tax, the River Center is in line for major upgrades in the near future.
The BRAVE program intended to bring down rates of gang violence in Baton Rouge took a hit earlier this year as questions arose about the city-parish's record keeping when the U.S. Department of Justice announced over the summer it was denying a request to carry forward unused grant money. The city-parish left more than $1 million of the reimbursement grant on the table.
One of the components of BRAVE had LSU researchers helping identify young people who were potential gang members. A $125,000 grant for LSU's work was cast aside earlier this year when other controversies about BRAVE stole the spotlight.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's former assistant chief administrative officer James Gilmore said over the summer that LSU was not going to receive the $125,000 unless the Justice Department extended the grant through 2018. Gilmore also said there wasn't enough money left in the city-parish's specific grant account for LSU, which had a $36,088 balance.
LSU research professor Cecile Guin said otherwise Dec. 7, when she noted LSU was always expecting the city-parish to reimburse the $125,000 because it was for work performed on the grant between 2016 and 2017.
Metro Council members unanimously agreed Wednesday to give LSU $125,000 of the unused federal grant money. The grant expired at the end of September, but the city-parish does not close out on it until the end of the year.
Broome's administration will wait until next year to ask the council to spend $300,000 in excess 2017 sales tax collections for a disparity study of city-parish contracts. The study would examine whether women, minorities and veterans are under-represented in those contracts.
Though Broome originally proposed to ask Wednesday for the funding, her administration requested council members at their meeting to delay voting on it until their next meeting in January.