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Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken is pictured here on Feb. 1, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The Jefferson Parish Council unanimously passed Parish President Mike Yenni's $645 million 2018 spending plan Wednesday.

The quick and uncontested vote was a contrast with last month, when the council bucked Yenni's request and deferred a vote on the budget to study it further, citing questions that were raised earlier in the fall about Yenni's spending on executive office renovations.

WWL-TV reported that Yenni spent $170,000 to make his office resemble President George W. Bush's Oval Office. Yenni has said that very little public money was spent on the project.

"I don't intend to be quick in rubber-stamping" the budget, Council Chairman Chris Roberts said in late November. However, it was approved Wednesday with no discussion. 

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Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts on Feb. 1, 2017.

The budget includes a 5 percent merit-based raise for parish employees, the third straight year such raises have been approved.

It projects $623 million in revenue, a figure Yenni called "conservative."

The $645 million in spending is about $32 million more than the 2017 budget approved a year ago, though the budget is often amended throughout the year.

Any shortfall in revenue will be covered by parish reserves.

The parish expects flat sales tax collections in 2018 and only a slight uptick in property tax revenue from this year.

The plan calls for $494.6 million in operational spending, though the majority of that has been dedicated by voters for specific uses, such as the parish jail and the District Attorney's Office.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng has said the fact that so much of the revenue is dedicated limits the council's ability to address new priorities as they arise, and she has helped create a committee to study the problem.

The budget also includes $76 million for capital projects, of which $29.6 million is set aside for drainage and flood protection upgrades.

In an unrelated move, the council approved the creation of two new positions — one for the East Bank and one for the West Bank — for blight eradication and community relations, but not before a spirited debate on how the parish will pay for them.

The positions are necessary, Councilman Mark Spears said, because blight remains an ongoing problem in many neighborhoods, bringing with it crime and other issues.

But Roberts questioned where the money to fund the positions would come from, given that the parish's general fund is already stretched.

"I just learned about this (proposal) when the agenda came out," Roberts said. "Where is the money coming from?"

A similar position in years past was partly funded by the Sheriff's Office and the Gretna Police Department, he said, asking the administration if those agencies are involved this time around.

Keith Conley, Yenni's chief operating officer, said they are not and that the positions were not included in the 2018 budget. The total cost of the two positions would be about $90,000, he said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken, a supporter of the measure, said it was her understanding that council members' discretionary funds would be used to pay for the positions.

The measure was amended to make it clear that the funding would come from the council's budget and then was passed unanimously.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.