Debate  on Kenner allowances continues

Michael Smith
Michael Smith

Although the debate over how Kenner provided car allowances for city employees was seemingly put to rest months ago, a recently released opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office has shown that there may be some lingering questions about the issue.

The Attorney General’s Office responded late last week to a request made by Mayor Mike Yenni in June for clarification on whether the city’s car, wireless and data allowances should be considered compensation or a reimbursement, and whether the Kenner City Council needed to approve those payments. The allowance debate exploded during the spring as attention from city residents and local media about the payments increased, and Yenni ultimately sought the opinion.

In an opinion numbered 12-0136, Assistant Attorney General Emalie A. Boyce said that the allowances provided to full-time, unclassified employees should be considered compensation, contradicting the long-held opinion of several Kenner city attorneys. She noted that since employees receive a flat fee regardless of vehicle usage, it is compensation.

However, in a ruling that may cause confusion, Boyce said that compensation does not have to be approved by the council as long as it is equal to the benefit those employees received when the city operated a much larger fleet of vehicles.

City Attorney Keith Conley hailed the opinion as a victory for the mayor’s office, noting that former Mayor Ed Muniz and Yenni both argued that the council did not need to sign off on the allowances. Conley said he disagrees with the Attorney General’s Office about whether the payments are compensation, because they are only reimbursements for the use of private vehicles and wireless phones for city work.

“I still stand behind the opinion that it’s a reimbursement of an expense and not a compensation,” Conley said.

Muniz actually made the move to allowances in 2006, and it has always been a source of consternation from some residents. Last summer those questions increased, particularly from some of Yenni’s most consistent critics, when it was learned the payments total about $100,000 annually. Conley noted that total still represents a cost-saving compared to when the city operated a larger fleet. The council ultimately approved the allowances, which top out at $400 per month for a vehicle and $150 for wireless, but there was disagreement about whether that approval was necessary.

Councilman Kent Denapolis said that regardless of the state’s opinion, it’s a good idea for the council to be involved in decisions that involve spending city money. Residents want compensation discussed openly, and they want to have input, he said.

“I think it’s always a good practice to bring anything that involves the public checkbook to the open,” he said. “Why not bring everything before the public?”

Councilman Keith Reynaud noted that the opinion only allows the mayor to sidestep the council if there is no change in the compensation provided. Since several employees who previously didn’t have take-home vehicles now receive allowances, the council needed to be notified based on the city’s charter, he said.

But Reynaud noted that the allowances probably don’t cover the costs some employees accrue given the driving they have to do. Councilwoman Maria Defrancesch said the council’s allowance doesn’t come close to covering her costs for gas and maintenance. Reynaud said he wasn’t thrilled with the allowances initially but learned to accept them.

“This is the best plan that was in place for the city,” he said.

Resident Jack Zewe said that might be true, but no one has really presented any proof. He said he’s requested an explanation for how the allowances were calculated based on the employees’ need to use their personal vehicles for city business but hasn’t received it in three years.

Zewe has compiled a list of every employee who received the allowance since 2007 and claims the size of the allowance has more to do with the employee’s relationship with the mayor than work duties. He said he wants a clear and transparent means for determining the allowances in the future, and he wants to know what the city plans to do about the money that was handed out erroneously in the past. He claims that 24 employees who never had a city vehicle now receive allowances.

“The problem was there was never a means test to determine how you became eligible,” Zewe said. “It’s not supposed to be at the whim of the mayor. … You can’t put lipstick on a pig and make it pretty.”

Conley said the city calculated the allowances based on the value of using a city vehicle; the allowances in other local municipalities; allowances in municipalities nationally; and the rules of allowances in private industry. He also noted that the allowance issue has been settled with the council’s approval and is essentially a “moot point.”