Harahan Mayor Tina Miceli has vetoed the $3.8 million 2016 operating budget passed at a Dec. 30 meeting at which four City Council members voted to strip $95,000 in line items, many of them funding responsibilities of the mayor.
The council called the meeting over the objections of the mayor and Councilwoman Sue Benton, who pointed out that the city’s newly hired accounting firm had indicated it wanted to review the numbers before providing input.
Councilman Craig Johnston, however, said it was important for the council to adhere to a 2015 ordinance requiring that a budget be passed by the beginning of the fiscal year, and he was supported by council members Tim Baudier, Carrie Wheeler and Dana Huete.
The council then voted 4-1 to pass the basic revenue and expenditures portion of the $6 million budget after moving some of the money for travel, legal fees, the city attorney’s salary and training, along with some line items they said the mayor could not adequately describe, into a line item created for “surplus” revenue.
It will take four votes to override Miceli’s veto.
The skirmish is yet another installment in an escalating power struggle between the four-member council bloc and the mayor.
Johnston called the budget maneuver a necessary step in exercising the council’s rightful role in city government, while Miceli said the fact the council did not cut any money from city departments’ budgets speaks for itself.
Johnston said Monday that the amounts budgeted for travel and the city attorney were brought down to where they have been in recent years, and that the other changes were not necessarily permanent, depending on what explanations he and the rest of the council ultimately get.
“We have the opportunity to move the money back, but the mayor wasn’t sure what those line items paid for,” he said.
Miceli, however, said many of the line items are very complicated and that the episode highlights why the council has no business altering the budget without the advice of trained professionals.
“I fear that the amended version that was passed does not follow state law,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think the council can simply create a line item called “surplus” and stow money in it. “Budgets are for professionals, and I don’t know how much more I can say than that.”
The city’s part-time chief financial officer resigned in November, and the city hired the firm of Carr Riggs & Ingram on a contract basis until the position is filled.
The firm told the city that it wanted to develop its own figures and would be ready to offer guidance on the 2016 budget sometime in the first quarter.
Johnston, Baudier, Huete and Wheeler, however, said they felt the figures provided by former CFO Robert Hienz were sufficient to work with and would allow the city to approve a budget by the deadline set by the ordinance.
“In a month or two, we can always go back and look at amendments,” Johnston said.
Miceli noted the chronically cash-strapped city failed more than once under prior administrations to get its budgets in on time.
She said there was no reason not to wait for the professional advisers to weigh in and that Harahan got into trouble under the prior administration in 2014 for altering the budget without the input of the CFO.
Miceli did not veto the $1.3 million sales tax fund the council passed, and she noted that the council didn’t pass the proposed $896,000 sewer budget despite members’ stated desire to adhere to the ordinance.
Johnston said the council would have liked to pass the sewer budget but didn’t want to do so because it was showing a deficit.
Miceli said the sewer fund is cash-positive and shows a deficit only because of depreciation. She said the council passed virtually the same sewer budget for 2015 in the summer.
She said her decision to veto the operating budget was unfortunate but necessary.
“We will proceed with every effort to follow the law, do things correctly and have the professionals offer the guidance and input as we need it,” she said. “We’re taking about our citizens’ tax dollars.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.