Metro Council members have begun poring over Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's proposed 2018 budget for $918 million to run City Hall through the next year, a 2.3 percent increase from this year's and a budget Broome's team has deemed "standstill."
The largest portion of the proposed budget continues to come from the general fund, in which Broome's administration is proposing to spend $319 million next year for public safety, public works and various other critical City Hall operations. More than 55 percent of the general fund would go toward public safety, and the proposed budget includes funding for two police training academies with 35 recruits each and one fire department training academy with 25 recruits.
Metro Council members focused Tuesday on the public works side of the proposed spending plan during their first budget hearing. They agreed to vote on the budget proposal next month. Heads of Baton Rouge's buildings and grounds, environmental services and fleet management departments said they are expecting little to no growth in their budgets next year.
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Council members pressed them on the ways in which they are trying to capture efficiencies and whether the city-parish could save money by contracting out more services, given growing health care and retirement costs for local government workers.
Bubba Cashio, director of buildings and grounds, said his department will start doing just that next year.
"We're going to have to work a lot smarter," Cashio said about the lack of budget growth.
But Nate Stohel, interim fleet management director, said it is often cheaper for his team to service government vehicles than for outside garages to do the work. Fleet management generates money by charging other city-parish entities to perform maintenance on their vehicles.
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Adam Smith, interim environmental services director, said his department is monitoring the rising costs of the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program. The amount the city-parish must pay for debt service will continue to balloon until 2025, and sewer fees for Baton Rouge residents will continue to rise annually until then, at least.
Other notable budget proposals include $845,000 for body camera maintenance; $260,000 for a pretrial diversion program to move those with mental illness and substance abuse conditions out of jail; $500,000 for the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority; and $226,000 for landscaping and lawn mowing services.
The city-parish is anticipating $800,000 in savings from the pretrial diversion program and $877,000 in savings from no longer giving money to the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, now that the nonprofit will start to collect its own dedicated tax.
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Local economists James Richardson and Loren Scott wrote in the budget proposal that while Baton Rouge has seen robust growth over the past decade, they expect the metro area to "slip to the middle of the pack" in 2018 and 2019.
The economists also said that as flood victims replaced their vehicles and bought building materials, those purchases accounted for 70 percent of the increase in Baton Rouge sales tax collections between 2015 and 2016. But they cautioned the sales tax increase post-flood was a one-time event, and post-flood spending will eventually slow down.