East Baton Rouge Council on Aging board members sparred Friday over whether City Hall was trying to get them to ante up more money on projects now that the agency anticipates receiving $7.8 million next year, a major increase in its budget after winning a dedicated property tax election last fall.
The Council on Aging board met Friday to review its proposed budget for next year and to learn about the progress on the renovation of a building on Main Street that is expected to become its new headquarters.
The city-parish had agreed to spend $1.3 million in federal unallocated disaster recovery funds on the building, but some board members Friday wondered whether they would be better off pulling the plug on the deal and finding a different property. The sticking point is the $750,000 the city-parish is now asking the Council on Aging to pay for a commercial kitchen in its new building.
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The contract already signed between the city-parish and Council on Aging stipulates that the Council on Aging will pay $3,500 a month in rent to the city-parish.
"They're trying to see if we're too stupid to manage this money," said board member Glenda Gentry, who works for Realty Consultants Group and who showed board members cheaper prices on other properties with similar square footage to the 23,000 square-foot building on Main Street.
Board member and State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle said the Council on Aging needed to push back against absorbing such "absurd" costs.
Throughout the meeting, Gentry and other board members referenced the bumpy road the Council on Aging had taken to secure the $7.8 million annually after winning a tax election last fall.
The Council on Aging, the agency's CEO Tasha Clark-Amar and the Support Our Seniors political action committee have been under constant scrutiny as auditors, political officials and others have accused them of mismanagement. The East Baton Rouge Metro Council in a June vote narrowly approved collecting the tax on the agency's behalf.
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But Council on Aging Board Chairwoman Jennifer Moisant and Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis — also a COA board member — disagreed with Gentry. Moisant pointed out that paying the $750,000 for the kitchen could replace the rent payments for years, based on her conversations with Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration.
"I have made a commitment to the mayor that we're not going to stick them with the building," Clark-Amar said.
She and other board members worried about the appearance of the Council on Aging walking away from a project the city-parish had agreed to help them with now that the agency has more money.
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Board member William Daniel, who also works for the city-parish, argued that the Council on Aging was getting a good deal from the city-parish, given how much federal money City Hall agreed to pour into the project for the agency's new headquarters. He said Gentry's comparisons were like comparing apples to oranges.
"Private companies can build way less expensive than government can, always," Daniel said. "But if you don't like the numbers, they're generated by architects, go get another estimate from an architect."
The board eventually voted to allow Moisant and Clark-Amar to continue negotiating the kitchen deal with the city-parish, with Gentry disagreeing.
Clark-Amar and Chief Financial Officer Eva Pratt also explained their proposed 2018 budget, which is when the agency should start receiving the $7.8 million in tax dollars. The budget includes hiring a public relations and marketing director for $99,000 to help improve the agency's image.
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The budget also calls for increasing its accounting staff from three to nine positions along with a staff increase to help with the expansion of Meals on Wheels program to seven days a week, serving more seniors by eliminating the wait list.
They also proposed a $1.48 million capital outlay budget, which includes the purchase of five new vans to help with the Meals on Wheels program, the renovation of the Homewood Pool it maintains for seniors, and the purchase of new office furniture.
The board approved the plan.