The Harahan City Council got in just under the wire to bring the city’s 2014 budget in line with its actual spending before the end of the year, but not without complications, disagreements, a lot of confusion and one caveat on Monday night.
Most of the two-hour meeting featured a touch of chaos, as council members debated proper protocols for passing the changes and tossed out occasionally conflicting figures they had calculated to fill budget holes. Several motions were proposed and approved only to be withdrawn and tweaked further, leaving city staff and clerks scrambling, though the changes in the roughly $6 million spending plan the council approved in the end were nearly identical to the ones members had first been presented a few weeks ago. The budget tweaks were needed to bring Harahan’s budget in line with its actual spending for the year, after the city spent about $600,000 more than it had anticipated. A state law requires that budgets be amended before the end of the year if they are more than 5 percent out of line with how much has actually been spent.
Harahan was criticized for violating that law in an audit released earlier this year, and some of Monday’s confusion stemmed from efforts to ensure the city was abiding by the state law this time around.
To plug this year’s deficit, the council took about $372,000 from the city’s capital projects fund, which pays for infrastructure and other one-time expenses, and money from the city’s “sinking fund,” which holds money to pay off bonds.
The balancing effort was eased by the fact that sales tax collections have exceeded projections.
Taking money from the capital projects fund proved to be especially complicated. State auditors had told city officials that the council needs to take a specific, separate vote to move that money, but for procedural reasons the council could not do so by the end of the year.
That means the incoming council, which will have three new members after this fall’s elections, will have to retroactively approve the measure. Councilwoman Cindy Murray opposed that procedure, saying she worried it would violate state law, though city officials said they had been assured by auditors that it would be OK.
Murray voted against that ordinance, the only measure that received a “no” vote during the meeting.
How to handle money in the capital projects fund was complicated by another factor: the need for the city to replenish other accounts it had raided during previous budget crunches.
Initially, council members considered taking $900,000 from that pot to help pay off the $1.3 million the city has taken from the other funds in recent years. That would have left only about $200,000 in the capital fund but would have been in keeping with the recommendations of auditors.
However, Murray and other council members argued the money should be left in the capital fund so that the council that takes office in January, which will include three new members, can decide how to handle the situation. That is particularly important in light of the city’s need to buy a new fire truck, which would be paid for from the capital projects fund, Murray said.
In the end, the council took just $372,000 from that source.
Though money also was taken from the sinking fund, the city still has enough reserves to pay off a year of its bonds even if no additional money comes in, City Finance Director Albert Courcelle said.
Council members also moved about $38,000 into the Police Department’s budget to cover unanticipated expenses.
The Police Department found itself in the hole after bills came in for overtime and for the department’s contributions to its employees’ pensions, said Police Chief Tim Walker, who was elected midway through the year. The budget also took a hit after Mayor Vinny Mosca declared Dec. 26 would be a city holiday, which requires additional pay for the officers on duty, he said.
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