Now that the Metro Council has exhausted its $808,850 discretionary fund, taken over from the Mayor’s Office in December, some council members regret how divided the council became when deciding how to spend the funds.
Metro Council members made an unprecedented move in December by reassigning themselves two accounts under Mayor-President Kip Holden’s control. The council took control of Holden’s $716,350 economic development program fund and the $92,500 community-sponsored program fund.
Holden had intended for the funds to go to more than a dozen nonprofits, community organizations, events and festivals.
The Metro Council typically does not have control of allocating funds in the city-parish budget, but when it approves the mayor’s proposed budget every December, it has the opportunity to move line items within the budget, which is how council members assigned themselves their own discretionary account.
Councilman Chandler Loupe, who made the motion to take control of the money last year, said after the December meeting that he wanted to send the mayor a message about spending priorities. He also said at the time that council members would not use the funds for their own districts’ pet projects.
But now Loupe admits that’s exactly what happened.
“We had different ideas about how we should spend it,” Loupe said. “I would have liked to see the rest of the money go to some broader programs that would affect the city as a whole rather than the individual districts, but I guess I can’t win every vote.”
The council used about 40 percent of the account for items Holden originally had intended to fund: $110,000 for a state lobbyist contract, $100,000 for the Red Stick Animation Festival, $100,000 for the Truancy Program, $10,000 for the Mid City art hops, and $31,350 for lease obligations at the Baton Rouge Metro Airport.
But in the past few months, the Metro Council could not come to a consensus about how to spend the last $200,000, with several of the council members representing low-income areas asking for the funds to be spent on summer youth programs and district community centers to provide out-of-school children jobs and recreation.
While many of the council members wanted summer youth programs, they ended up submitting competing proposals for their own districts that never garnered enough votes to pass.
Earlier this month, council members C. Denise Marcelle, Tara Wicker, Ronnie Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois collaborated to allocate the remaining funds to a handful of nonprofits and the council passed the remaining items.
Councilman Joel Boé said he was one of the few council members to vote against taking control of the money in the first place because he predicted the fund would become a grab bag.
“I anticipated it would become what it did become, which is a fight and a struggle between 12 council members,” he said, adding that he generally disagrees with the use of public money for nonprofits.
Marcelle said in retrospect that she wishes council members had worked together more effectively to decide how the money should be used.
“We should have had some discussion about what we thought the best use of the money should be,” she said. “We didn’t have a consensus and ended up waiting until the last hour to allocate the money, with some council members getting what they wanted out of it, and others not supporting their causes.”
Despite the fighting, council members agreed that the funds were wisely spent for public safety programs such as the two-week trial of the misdemeanor jail and the $150,000 in startup funds for the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program.
But Marcelle said she does regret that many of the nonprofits and organizations for which Holden budgeted the funds were cut out.
More than a dozen parish organizations and events did not receive funds Holden had budgeted for them, including Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church Charitable Foundation, the Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation, the Cinderella Project, Greater Baton Rouge Literacy Coalition, National Alliance for Mental Illness, Alzheimer’s Services, St. Vincent de Paul, Southern University College of Business, Cortana Kiwanis and the Museum of African American History programs.
Holden declined an interview for this story, but during a recent campaign event, he criticized the council for taking the funds to spend on “pet projects in their district, instead of looking overall at Baton Rouge and doing something comprehensive.”
“Let’s stop the wasteful spending,” he said Friday. “It’s not about my district, it’s about our community.”
Marcelle said taking over the funds allowed the council to help out many smaller organizations in need of assistance.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars may not be a lot to a large organization, but it is for a small organization trying to keep its head above water,” she said.
She also said many of the organizations funded will have a broader reach, such as the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit founded by former state Sen. Cleo Fields to provide extracurricular services and leadership training to students.
The Metro Council gave the Leadership Institute another $115,000 earlier this year, money it took from the Center for World Affairs, a loss which has rendered the international nonprofit virtually inactive.
This December, the Metro Council will sign off on the 2013 budget and could potentially make similar moves.
Marcelle said if the mayor would work with council members to fund programs important to them, then there wouldn’t be a need to take the funds.
Asked if he would change his approach to the discretionary accounts, Holden responded in an emailed statement, “We are looking at all aspects of what occurred last year and you will know what our position is when the budget is presented to the council on Nov. 5.”