It’s summertime — for many, a time of vacations and trips to the beach. But not for the leaders of Mandeville, who every summer must debate and pass the city’s annual budget.
The north shore city’s fiscal year begins on Sept. 1, meaning the budget must be proposed, debated and approved by the end of August. And like the temperature outside, the deliberations inside City Hall can get heated.
This year’s budget is likely to be no different. Tucked inside the $43 million, 140-plus-page proposal from Mayor Donald Villere are items that almost certainly will draw debate. Add in the wants and needs of the five City Council members, and getting the budget approved is likely to stir some passion.
The key issue in this year’s budget is pay raises for city employees. Last year, the city sharply increased the amount that employees must pay in health insurance premiums. Employees, some making less than $10 an hour, were unhappy. In a budget workshop earlier this month, several employees made impassioned pleas for salary increases.
Villere agreed with them, saying city workers’ salaries are “far below” what they should be. The city is losing employees to retirement and other jobs, and recruiting new hires is becoming increasingly difficult, he said.
“We have to get to the point where we can offer someone a job (that pays) more than a guy flipping burgers,” he said.
Earlier this year, the board that oversees Mandeville’s civil service employees recommended a 15 percent across-the-board raise, which would cost the city about $1.1 million. In his budget proposal, Villere substituted a suggestion to increase every pay scale in the city by $1,000. Such an increase would cost about $450,000, but some of the cost would be offset by reducing the number of city employees in the Public Works Department and by restructuring other positions.
On Thursday, however, Villere said that might not be enough and that he planned to urge the council to add a 5 percent or more raise on top of the $1,000.
“I would like to see the council do something significant,” he said.
On this issue, at least, there seems to be a broad consensus that city employees need a raise. At-large Councilman Rick Danielson, who has announced that he will run against Villere for mayor in next spring’s election, seemed in general agreement with Villere on the subject.
“The employees we have are our most important asset,” he said. “We can never pay them what they truly deserve.”
Danielson’s position is shared by Councilwoman Carla Buchholz, who said a raise for employees is warranted.
Neither, however, would commit to a particular number for the raise. Danielson said he was still in a “listening mode,” and Buchholz said she felt the council needed to settle on a figure somewhere below the 15 percent raises recommended by the Civil Service Board.
Council Chairman Clay Madden said he was still studying the issue but that he thought it likely that at least the city’s police officers deserve a salary increase.
Beyond the raises, items in the city’s capital budget could prove the most controversial, especially flood protection. Both Villere and Danielson identified flood protection as a priority, and both said a recent study by the engineering firm GEC and a planned one by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be used for long-term planning. But Danielson said there are some ideas that could be put into the 2016 budget, such as erosion prevention measures on some of the city’s waterways.
Over the past two years, Danielson has repeatedly pushed for more capital expenditures for flood protection, at times over Villere’s objections.
Another capital project — the renovation and possible expansion of City Hall — could also provoke debate. In May, the City Council rejected a Villere proposal to hire an architectural firm to draft plans for the renovation. At the time, Villere said City Hall is too cramped and is confusing for people who come to the building to do business.
Danielson called the renovation “a want” and not a need and said the city needs to study the issue before determining what should be done.
The city has budget workshops scheduled on July 27 and Aug. 4. In each of the past two years, those have been volatile affairs, sometimes devolving into shouting matches and name-calling.
This year, the temperatures inside City Hall have stayed cool so far, but — especially with the spring elections looming — the possibility of fireworks cannot be discounted.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.