Reallocation of more than $600,000 in Pointe Coupee Parish sales tax revenue has turned budget talks among Police Jury members into a “he say, she say” blame game as the parish keeps struggling with revenue shortfalls.
Juror Justin Cox has accused Jury President Melanie Bueche and Parish Administrator Jim Bello of “willfully circumventing the democratic system” and withholding information from the public regarding the parish’s financial affairs.
Cox first made his accusations during the Police Jury’s regular meeting last week, the day after a majority voted at Monday night’s Finance Committee meeting to transfer $675,000 out of the parish’s road tax fund.
The jury intends to use the transferred money to overcome a budget shortfall of about $500,000 in its roads and bridges fund, Bueche said.
“We’ve had a shortfall in that fund for many years,” she said. “We actually have three funds with tremendous shortfalls — roads and bridges, drainage and the detention funds.”
But Cox said the entire Police Jury should have entertained a vote at Tuesday’s regular meeting to approve the budget transfer as well.
Cox and Juror Kurt Jarreau both said they oppose the $675,000 transfer because doing so would cripple the parish’s chances of having a road construction program this year.
Pointe Coupee’s road fund receives about $1.4 million annually from a 15-year, 1/2 percent sales tax that voters approved in 1997.
Proceeds from the tax, which was renewed by voters in 2012, can be spent on construction, improvement and resurfacing of parish roads and bridges, according to the proposition.
In an email to Jarreau, the jury’s accountant, Tommy LeJeune, cautioned the Police Jury against approving the budget transfer because it would reduce the road tax fund surplus to $167,000 in the 2013 operating budget.
“Leaving only $167,000 for additional roads and roads maintenance is not what the public had in mind when they supported the road program tax, and both of them know that,” Cox said in an email.
“I have looked at the previous Finance Committee meeting minutes,” Cox also wrote, “Every time a finance meeting voted on an issue, it was presented to the jury for consideration at a regular meeting. So why would the last meeting be any different? It is because the (parish administrator) and president did not want the issue to be discussed at a regular meeting out of fear of a public backlash for transferring that much money from the Road Tax program instead of reducing spending?”
Cox also said in the email a parish employee overheard a conversation between Bello and Bueche suggesting they did not want to bring up the $600,000 transfer issue at last week’s jury meeting.
Bueche denied she had a private meeting with Bello, but did have a telephone conversation with him before Tuesday’s meeting.
Bueche said she didn’t place the budget transfer item on the meeting agenda because Bello told her the Police Jury didn’t have to rehash the issue since a majority of jurors were present at the finance meeting and had already voted on the matter.
Bueche added she also knew the item wouldn’t get the unanimous support it needed to get placed on the agenda.
Cox also criticizes Bello in connection with a number of administrative obligations which Cox says have been overlooked for years.
Cox said there hasn’t been an audit of the parish’s inventory in six years, employee evaluations haven’t been done since 2008 and the jury has never adopted a policy for collecting overdue bills.
“We have given him the authority to run (the parish) like a business and that’s what he’s supposed to be doing,” Cox said.
Jarreau also criticized Bello for even recommending the $600,000 fund transfer to the Finance Committee.
“For him to make that recommendation without talking to our (accountant) first — I have a problem with that,” Jarreau said.
Bello said he’s “disappointed” by suggestions by Cox and Jarreau that he “misrepresented” the Police Jury.
“I didn’t tell them anything that hadn’t already been done,” Bello said.
Bello sent an email to police jurors and parish officials Friday saying the Police Jury has been transferring money from the road tax fund into the roads and bridges fund — in various increments — since 2006.
“The divisive environment that exists currently in our organization is causing stress upon not only jurors, but also our employees,” Bello wrote. It’s “fragmenting our agency and its ability to provide the daily services expected by the public we all serve.”
Bueche said Friday she hasn’t spoken to Cox since Tuesday’s meeting and doesn’t intend to do so until she has had time to “level off.”
Moving forward, Bueche said, the Police Jury will hold another finance meeting soon with jury accountant LeJeune in attendance.
“He’ll be able to tell us right away what will work and then we can make some of the cuts we need to make,” she said. “When you start doing all this ‘he say, she say,’ no one trusts anybody else and everything just disintegrates.”