Livingston president, council scrap over budget

Parish President Layton Ricks said the 2013 budget adopted by the Livingston Parish Council earlier this month so severely amends his proposed budget that it is “unjust and potentially illegal.”

Ricks issued 36 line-item vetoes Thursday to the council’s adopted budget, which he described in his veto statement as “tantamount to a monthly budget rather than an annual budget” because he said it would require him to petition the council for operating expenses on a regular basis.

The nine-member Parish Council can override the vetoes with a two-thirds vote, but must do so on or before the next council meeting on Jan. 10, Parish Attorney Chris Moody said. The council’s Dec. 6 vote to adopt the budget was unanimous.

The budget lines Ricks vetoed include reductions in the projected cost for employee health insurance benefits in all departments and funds. The council reduced those appropriations by $816,938 overall, a level Ricks said cannot be met even with changes in employee benefit options previously approved by the council.

The council also reduced appropriations for professional services from the $507,400 Ricks proposed to $309,650, he said. The parish government spent $879,000 on professional services in 2012, Ricks said.

Those services include engineers, contractors, bridge inspectors, legal services including costs incurred by the parish attorney, alarm systems, heating and air services for governmental buildings, telecommunications and computer services, Ricks said.

Councilman Chance Parent said the council should know what professional services contracts exist, and how much each company is being paid for its services, before approving the appropriations.

“We’re supposed to get copies of those contracts. If we get the documentation, we may go ahead and appropriate the money, but it’s hard to approve a budget if we don’t know where the money is going,” Parent said.

Other appropriations reduced below projected cost levels, Ricks said, include capital outlay construction and road projects, grants, administrative salaries, an animal control liaison position, office supplies and court-ordered juror and witness fees mandated by state law.

“The original adopted operating budget should, at minimum, meet the expected level of appropriation requirements of the current operation of government,” Ricks said in his veto statement. “This budget does not meet those requirements.”

Ricks contends the reductions are an attempt by the council to usurp his authority as parish president under the parish Home Rule Charter.

Council Chairwoman Cindy Wale said the council members simply wanted to institute some checks and balances in the budget process by requiring Ricks to seek council approval for larger expenses.

“We’ve given him enough money to operate on a daily basis, but when we’ve got bigger projects going on, we want to know what stage they’re at, what’s getting done and whether it’s being done right, before we cut a check,” Wale said.

If the council’s adopted budget is finalized, Ricks said, the parish may be in breach of obligations under existing contracts, unable to complete road projects both planned and already under way, and in violation of its own personnel policy regarding employee benefits.

Moody said Thursday he has concerns about the council’s adopted budget and thinks Ricks’ argument may be a good one, although Moody has had trouble finding any court decisions dealing with similar situations.

Moody said he hopes, however, that the council and parish president will work together and come to a consensus about the budget before Jan. 10.