The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council broke apart Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $11.1 million budget supplement Wednesday, approving all public safety appropriations, including police and fire academies.
However, it killed a contract with a Washington D.C., lobbying firm the administration says has secured tens of millions of dollars of grants for the city-parish.
The council also nearly rejected $705,000 worth of downtown improvements that were to be funded by dedicated dollars that, by law, can only be spent on downtown riverfront projects
Holden’s mid-year budget supplement included 11 line items with the vast majority of the money allocated to the Police Department, Fire Department, Sheriff’s Office and Coroner’s Office.
The budget supplement, funded through savings and surplus funds, also included money for public works, an aviation maintenance program for Baton Rouge Community College, the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security, two FutureBR projects, downtown improvements and the $200,000 Patton Boggs lobbyist contract.
The Metro Council debated the budget supplement for the majority of its four-hour meeting, with several members criticizing the mayor’s spending choices, saying the mayor did not go far enough to address law enforcement needs.
“It turned into some people trying to turn this into politics and some people trying to criticize the Mayor’s Office,” Holden said of the council’s reaction to the supplement after the meeting.
“When you get through it and all the smoke clears, what we have is something that will do something for public safety, and do more than we’ve been doing.”
Patton Boggs, a top-rated federal lobbying firm that employs former U.S. Sens. John Breaux and Trent Lott, has represented Baton Rouge since 2005. It says it has secured $40 million in direct funding for the city-parish for transportation, infrastructure, law enforcement and small-business development.
Patton Boggs also has provided tens of millions of dollars worth of additional money for the city-parish, benefiting programs such as Head Start, energy efficiency and conservation initiatives, emergency shelters and the Sheriff’s Office, according to a report prepared by the firm.
Holden said the firm recently helped tweak the city-parish’s application process for funds needed for Operation BRAVE, a police program targeting violent crime in Baton Rouge.
Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison criticized the administration for bringing the lobbying contract back for consideration after the Metro Council had rejected it, and for allowing the firm to continue to operate without an approved contract in the hopes it would later be compensated.
The council recently rejected the mayor’s proposal to pay for the Patton Boggs contract from the council’s discretionary fund.
Chief Administrative Officer John Carpenter said the contract was brought back for the council’s consideration because the council had indicated it would consider approving the contract if it was paid for using other funds
Council Chiarman Mike Walker had said in April, “If it’s that important and means that much for the mayor, then he ought to come up with his own money and let us use our $200,000 for fighting crime.”
Walker made the motion Wednesday to delete the Patton Boggs contract from the budget supplement, saying it was not as important as crime-fighting.
The council voted, 7-4, to delete the contract from the agenda with Trae Welch, Joel Boé, Tara Wicker and Alison Gary voting against deleting the contract.
Voting to kill the contract were Walker, Addison, Scott Wilson, Ronnie Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis, C. Denise Marcelle and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois. Chandler Loupe was absent.
Holden said it’s much more difficult for cities now to receive earmarks from the federal government compared with previous years, so having a savvy lobbying firm to help compete for grants against other cities is important.
“It will take away our competitive edge,” Holden said after the meeting. “We are operating from a position of weakness rather than from a position of strength.”
The Metro Council also initially voted against spending $705,000 of state sales tax rebates dedicated to downtown for projects included in the budget supplement.
“I understand it’s dedicated money,” Bourgeois said, referring to the downtown funds. “I call it dedicated waste.”
The downtown funds included plans for lighting on the Galvez Plaza stage canopy, signs in Town Square, some street enhancements and an additional $325,000 for ongoing renovations of Repentance Park, adjacent to City Hall.
Bourgeois took issue with spending additional money on Repentance Park, noting $3.5 million already had been appropriated. Department of Public Works officials said the money is needed because of unforeseen underground obstructions.
Wicker asked the council to reconsider, and approve the time-sensitive funds for Repentance Park while deferring the remaining downtown items until the next council’s next meeting.
The council supported Wicker’s request, 7-4, with Addison, Wilson, Marcelle and Bourgeois voting against it.
The approval of the budget supplement means the police will get 30 additional officers from a police academy that begins July 30 and the Fire Department will get 35 new firefighters from an academy beginning Aug. 11.
Before approving the public safety items, Metro Council members admonished the administration for not including funds for the District Attorney’s Office, summer youth programs and for more officers in the police academy to address its staff shortage.
Police Chief Dewayne White said he has 59 vacancies, and 35 more officers will retire in the next 18 months. He said he will ask the Mayor’s Office for 75 more officers in 2013.
When asked by the council if he would grant White’s request, Holden said the request would be considered, but “no department that comes into the process gets 100 percent of their requests.”
In other matters, the council deferred action on a request to raise the pay scale of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library System director, a move a search firm has recommended to attract better qualified candidates.