‘Bare bones’ budget outlined

After years of operating with the smallest of cushions, Westwego officials are projecting a slight improvement in the city’s finances in 2013, but even with that bump the city is operating on a “bare bones” budget.

Westwego Mayor John Shaddinger formally presented the Westwego City Council with his 2013 budget on Monday, although officials have been discussing the document for weeks.

Shaddinger is projecting about $14.1 million in general fund revenue in 2013 and about $15.7 million in expenditures. That includes a $1.2 million subsidy for the city’s wastewater and potable water treatment facilities, the latest in a long line of ever-growing subsidies for those facilities.

However, unlike in recent years when Westwego would only have operating reserves of about $40,000 to $70,000, this year the city expects to carry a reserve of roughly $264,000.

While that’s a substantial increase, it is well below the recommended reserve of roughly 15 percent of expenditures, City Accountant James Butler said. He said that given the overall size of the city’s budget, the bump in reserves isn’t nearly enough.

“I don’t see much difference between the two,” Butler said.

Butler said that unless Westwego receives some unexpected largesse, the city will have to continue to work to slowly grow its reserves. Next year’s goal might be a $500,000 reserve, with steady increases every year, he said.

Shaddinger said he’s tried to keep the city’s expenditures relatively constant in the face of flat sales tax and property tax revenues. He’s worked to reduce overtime throughout comp time, and that showed in a public works department that is well below budget for 2012.

Shaddinger said Westwego will still have to watch its pennies, but things aren’t as dire as they’ve been in recent years.

“That is as close to the bones as you can get and still stay above board,” Shaddinger noted. “The budget is still pretty tight considering we’ve got about a $15 million operating budget.”

Shaddinger said he’s pleased that no city employees will have to be laid off, and the budget contains the standard 2 percent annual raises for workers.

He noted that Westwego completed several capital improvements in 2012, like the major upgrade to the Catfish Bourgeois Park, thanks to an influx of state money.

He’s hoping to do the same in 2013 with a new $1.6 million emergency operations center on Fourth Street, which is being funded primarily by the state.

In addition, the city expects to finally begin construction on a new $3.5 million governmental complex next year.

The two biggest drains on the city’s budget continue to be its water and wastewater treatment plants, although the city’s Farmers and Fisheries Market is projected to lose $80,000 in 2013.

The water treatment plant is projected to lose more than $860,000 in 2013, while the wastewater treatment plant will lose roughly $364,000. Westwego is borrowing about $1 million from the state to make improvements to the sewer plant, which might increase efficiency there.

City officials also are exploring the possibility of a new drinking water plant that could stop the annual hemorrhaging of money.

Councilman Glenn Green said the budget seems fairly reasonable. As long as the city can avoid major disasters, it should be able to continue its slow improvement, he said.

The council will vote on the budget in December.

“It’s not a bad budget,” Green said. “We’re hoping that we don’t get any emergencies.”