Port Allen officials locked in budget impasse

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  City Attorney Victor Woods explains a point of procedure as Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence and Councilman Garry Hubble listen during a special meeting called to consider Port Allen's 2013-14 fiscal year budget.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- City Attorney Victor Woods explains a point of procedure as Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence and Councilman Garry Hubble listen during a special meeting called to consider Port Allen's 2013-14 fiscal year budget.

The City Council shot down a motion Wednesday night to publicly discuss Mayor Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter’s $9.7 million proposed spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year, but that didn’t stop officials from arguing about it anyway.

“I’m not going to put up with some of the stuff in the budget,” Councilman R.J. Loupe said during the special meeting of the council called to consider next year’s budget.

Loupe, along with Councilmen Hugh “Hootie” Riviere and Garry Hubble, voted against proceeding with the budget hearing. Council members Ray Helen Lawrence and Brandon Brown voted in favor of conducting the budget hearing.

The council majority’s decision not to discuss the budget came a day after all three joined in filing a lawsuit asserting Slaughter has been making illegal financial transactions with taxpayers’ money.

An 18th Judicial District Court judge scheduled arguments on the lawsuit for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

During Wednesday night’s meeting, Lawrence called the ongoing tension between council members and the mayor an embarrassment to the city.

“We have become the laughingstock of the nation,” Lawrence said. “We need to come to some type of common ground. It’s ugly. It has gotten bad. All this fussing and fighting and stressing is not getting Port Allen anywhere.”

Hubble and Riviere said they voted against holding the budget hearing because they had doubts the mayor properly introduced the proposed budget during the council’s last meeting, on June 12. They said the mayor’s spending plan should have included an appropriation ordinance.

Riviere said Slaughter also failed to present her budget proposal in time to meet a stipulation of the Louisiana Government Budget Act requiring a 15-day public review of the proposed budget before adoption.

“We were not provided with an ordinance until June 17, when it was sent to my home,” Riviere said. “How can it be considered introduced? I don’t want to do anything that could be construed as illegal.”

Loupe said he would not entertain any discussion, or vote, on the city’s 2013-14 spending plan until the mayor sat down with the city’s chief financial officer and various department heads to iron out the budget’s details.

Loupe added he would not accept the proposed deep cuts in salaries of the city’s chief administrative officer and chief financial officer that Slaughter listed in her budget proposal.

According to the mayor’s 2013-14 spending plan, Slaughter wants to reduce the CAO’s salary from $64,867 to $44,867 a year and drop the CFO’s annual pay from $73,034 to $33,034.

However, the mayor’s fiscal 2013-14 budget retains her own $84,960 annual pay. Slaughter’s salary has been a hot-button issue since she took office on Jan. 1 because the City Council reduced it by $20,000 when adopting the city budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The mayor’s salary was reduced to $65,000 a year on the recommendation of former Mayor Roger Bergeron, who said previously he felt the Port Allen mayor’s salary was too high in comparison with salaries of mayors in cities about the size of Port Allen.

Port Allen resident Ray Stumbo asked Slaughter during the council’s public comment period to defend her proposal to reduce the salaries of the CAO and CFO.

“After looking at some of the same cities that my salary was compared to, I had the opportunity to do the same with the CAO and CFO position,” Slaughter replied.

“You used the same criteria to determine their salary that was used to lower your salary — which you refuse to accept?” Stumbo told Slaughter.

The stalemate between the mayor and the council’s majority over the 2013-14 budget now means the city will most likely roll into the new fiscal year, which begins Monday, operating on 50 percent of the 2012-13 fiscal year budget.

“Whatever the budget was at this time last year, that’s what the budget will be in July,” City Attorney Victor Woods said. “But the only way the problem will be resolved is if there is a discussion about the budget. If you don’t ever hold a public hearing, there can’t be a discussion on the budget … and we can’t move forward.”

Woods stressed that the council and mayor would have to seek a compromise and then approve a budget for the next fiscal year. The city’s current fiscal year will close Sunday.

“We’ve come to a point where … everyone feels they are backed up against the wall and they don’t want to give in at any point because that would then be admitting that ‘I’m wrong,’ ” Woods told city leaders. “As long as (the budget) has been given to y’all and properly advertised, let’s move forward.”

Despite Woods’ plea, the meeting was adjourned without the mayor or City Council reaching agreement on how to proceed with the budget impasse.

Slaughter declined to answer any questions after the meeting, but Riviere said he’s “optimistic” the issue will be resolved amicably.

“I would love for the mayor and CFO, along with all department heads, to sit down and discuss things,” Riviere said.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on June 27, 2013, to clarify that the proposed budget calls for reducing the chief administrative officer’s annual salary from $64,867 to $44,867 and the chief financial officer’s annual salary from $73,034 to $33,034. An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated both proposed salary reductions were for the CAO position. The Advocate regrets the error.