After last year’s tempestuous set of Mandeville budget workshops, this year’s budget-review process — which lacked some of the hot-button issues that ignited last year’s debates — was expected to go relatively smoothly. In anticipation, the City Council scheduled only three budget workshops and vowed that each would last only two hours.
A fourth was put on the calendar on an “if necessary” basis. It was held Monday night, then the council decided yet another session is needed.
The city operates on a fiscal year that runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, meaning its approximately $40 million budget must be approved this month to go into effect in September.
One constant from last year remains. The conflicts that have so often derailed the business of city government, exposing deep rifts between Mayor Donald Villere and some members of the five-person council, are still present.
Those old conflicts flared up again at Monday’s hearing. At issue were familiar themes: the council’s desire to understand Villere’s reasoning behind some budget items and to examine some line items in minute detail and Villere’s insistence that the council is intruding into administration prerogatives.
Last year, one of the key conflicts was over Villere’s desire to add two positions to the city’s payroll: an additional accountant and a communications coordinator. The council thought both were unnecessary and removed them from the budget.
This year, the mayor budgeted for no new positions, but the council questioned Monday night why the city has 126 full-time positions budgeted when only 111 positions are filled. Over the past five years, the most full-time employees the city has had is 122, according to Frank Oliveri, the finance director. The discrepancy led some council members to question why Villere would budget for so many positions when it is a virtual certainty that the city will not employ that many people in the coming year.
“Wouldn’t it just be more prudent to budget for 122?” Councilman David Ellis asked.
“No,” Oliveri said. “When we are thin, we pay more money in overtime and other costs” associated with being understaffed, he said.
The council also questioned Villere’s proposal to give employees, excluding department heads and the mayor, a $500 across-the-board raise. The questions — some of which referenced a salary study showing some of Mandeville’s salaries are higher than in surrounding communities — drew a sharp response from Human Resources Director Gretchen McKinney.
“We ask more from our employees than other cities. We are not Covington, Slidell or Hammond,” she said. “I would like our employees to know they are appreciated. That $500 is nothing.”
The proposed raise would cost the city about $123,000 in the first year, Oliveri said.
The debate lasted more than an hour and, like last year’s, had its strange moments, such as when Councilman Ernest Burguières questioned why there were so many pie charts in the budget document.
A second surreal moment occurred when, in the middle of a discussion of the city’s insurance utilization rate, Councilwoman Carla Buchholz said assertively “No, I am not over 60,” causing the room to go silent then erupt in laughter. She apparently was responding to something said by Burguières. After a moment, the council moved on to a discussion of medical insurance for police officers.
To Villere, the council is doing the same thing it did last year — venturing outside its legislative mandate and meddling in administrative matters.
“I just don’t see the need to get into this kind of detail,” he said, insisting that he has spent the city’s money wisely.
“I don’t think they are going to make anything easy,” he said of the council.
The council scheduled a fifth budget workshop for 6 p.m. Aug. 27 in the council chambers. It plans to vote on the spending plan the following day.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.