The way Baton Rouge decides how to spend taxpayer money is "an insult" to the city-parish's legislative body and "almost a joke" to the community, frustrated Metro Council members said Monday.
The council's Plan of Government committee met to discuss changes to the local constitution. Suggestions to change the budget process engendered much discussion.
Currently, the mayor-president's office drafts the annual budget and sends it to the Metro Council in November. The council must make any changes or accept the budget by the end of the year.
"Somehow we need to get the budget to the council before November," committee chairwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said.
She and other council members said six weeks during the holiday season just isn't enough time to adequately review the city-parish's finances and proposed spending.
The council holds budget hearings, but members and the public often don't attend, either because they're with family on vacation or they view the budget as a fait accompli by the time it reaches the council for approval, councilwoman Tara Wicker said.
Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg said the council only has time for a superficial review. Watching the proceedings on a television in the lobby was Councilman Matt Watson, who is not a member of the committee. He told The Advocate it's insulting to the community that their legislative representatives don't have a chance to really participate in the budgeting process.
Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp recommended having the mayor's office turn over the budget in September.
That would mean basing the budget on just six months' worth of sales tax collections, assistant finance director Linda Hunt warned.
"This is very extreme and would be very difficult for us to do," she said.
Why not switch to a fiscal year that starts July 1 like the state and school board, said attorney Winston DeCuir, who represents Southern University. Such a schedule would allow the city-parish to factor in the holiday shopping season, even with a faster turnaround to give the council more time with the budget, he said.
DeCuir's proposal seemed to gain traction, though no official action was taken.
The committee is running out of time if it wants to put items on the November ballot. Any propositions must be introduced to the Metro Council no later than July 24.
Monday's three-hour committee meeting didn't even hit all the important topics, such as Metro Council term limits and at-large seats.
There was brief discussion of officially adopting a city manager position, though the intent appeared to retain the city-parish's strong mayor form of government.
The city manager would have much of the same duties as the mayor's chief administrative officer, a position currently held by Darryl Gissel, Knapp said. One difference would be that the Metro Council would have to approve the hire. Department heads would also report to the city manager, rather than the mayor, which is already common, but would be codified, Knapp said.