Proposed Slidell budget assumes no growth in sales tax revenue _lowres

Photo by Carol Graff -- Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan, right, proclaimed January 2015 as the Observance of Exceptional Philanthropic Organizations. He is seen with Slidell Elks Exalted Ruler Herbert Hostler.

Sales tax growth in Slidell has been as rare as the red-cockaded woodpecker in recent years, but for the first seven months of the 2014-15 fiscal year, city officials saw $605,000 more in revenue than anticipated, due mainly to the opening of the Fremaux Town Center mall.

Despite that growth, and the fact that the shopping center’s second phase will open this fall, Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan isn’t including that 3.2 percent growth in the proposed $42 million budget for 2015-16 that was introduced at a Slidell City Council meeting this week.

Drennan said he wants to see sustained growth before he counts on that extra money, and the budget is projecting $18.7 million in sales tax revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the same amount as in the current budget.

Sales taxes make up the largest portion of the city’s revenue stream, at 45 percent.

Drennan said the city’s fiscal picture is far healthier than it was three years ago, when Slidell trimmed 40 positions and reduced the city’s contribution to employee retirement funds, among other austerity measures.

In his budget message, the mayor described those steps as necessary to preserving the city’s financial health but said they made Slidell less competitive with other employers, and the city now is having trouble attracting and retaining employees.

The proposed budget provides a 50-cents-per-hour raise for city employees. That works out to an average raise of 3.39 percent. City workers also got a raise in last year’s budget, but Drennan said the pay increases are just helping to make up for the greater share that employees now have to pay into their retirement plans.

Drennan also appointed a compensation committee that has been working for a year and half reviewing and updating job descriptions and making recommendations on pay levels. That work should be completed in the next three to four months, Drennan said, and any suggested pay increases likely will be addressed in a supplemental budget.

The mayor’s budget message also said the city’s efforts to reduce medical insurance costs for retirees and their dependents are threatened by litigation.

Dean Born, a retired building inspector, sued the city over an ordinance adopted in 2008 that requires retirees to switch to a Medicare plan. The budget message credits that change with reducing the city’s unfunded liability for retiree benefits from $43 million to $26 million.

Slidell is close to paying off bonds that were issued 20 years ago, and that will give the city the capacity to issue $31 million in new bonds for street, drainage, water, sewer and public works projects. Drennan said he wants to start a discussion with residents and officials about future capital improvements.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocate.